Electronic waste from obsolete phones, cameras, computers and other mobile devices is one of the scourges of this information age. The circuitry and packaging is not only non-biodegradable but is laced with toxic substances such as heavy metals. Imagine, then, a computer that can be disposed of by simply letting soil bacteria eat it – or even, should the fancy take you, by eating it yourself. Biodegradable information technology is now closer to appearing on the menu following the announcement by Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts University in Massachusetts, United States, and co-workers that they could create a laser from silk.
In collaboration with David Kaplan, a specialist in the biochemistry of silk at Tufts, Omenetto has been exploring the uses of silk for several years. He is convinced that it can offer us much more than glamorous clothing. It is immensely strong – more so than steel – and can be used to make tough fibres and ropes. In the Far East, silk was once used to pad armour, and in pre-revolutionary Russia a form of primitive bullet-proof clothing was made from it. It can be moulded like plastic, yet is biodegradable: silk cups can be thrown away to quickly break down in the environment. It is also biocompatible, and so could be used to make medical implants such as screws to hold together mending bones, or artificial blood vessels. You can even eat it safely, although it doesn’t taste good. What’s more, all of this comes from sustainable and environmentally friendly processing.