For centuries, silkworms have built cocoons of fibers that, when boiled, generate silk filaments that can be made into fabrics of beauty and diversity. Scientific breakthroughs have now harnessed the power of 3-D printing, a process of making three-dimensional objects from layers of materials. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Mass., has combined the two concepts to create a Silk Pavilion with a 3-D template upon which silkworms formed a fibrous layer of nonwoven textile material. “The silkworm embodies everything an additive fabrication system currently lacks,”says Neri Oxman, director of the Mediated Matter Group at MIT’s Media Lab.
MIT built the primary structure with 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a computer-controlled machine. The template included areas where threads were laid down with greater or lesser density. Then a swarm of 6,500 silkworms, positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold holding the template, went to work, spinning flat nonwoven silk patches to reinforce the gaps between template threads. After the silkworms finished pupation, researchers removed them from the pavilion and allowed them to develop into moths, which can produce 1.5 million eggs, thereby hatching enough silkworms to build 250 additional silk pavilions—or another creation. “Future research aims to unite 3-D printing with artificial intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales depositing structural materials,” says Oxman. Learn more at treehugger.com.