Silk Fibers Could Be High-Tech ‘Natural Metamaterials’

Anderson light localization in biological nanostructures of native silk

New research suggests fibers from a silkworm’s cocoon may represent “natural metamaterials,” a discovery with various technological and scientific implications.

June 18, 2018 | Source: Purdue University,, 31 Jan 2018, Emil Venere

New research has demonstrated how the nano-architecture of a silkworm’s fiber causes “Anderson localization of light,” a discovery that could lead to various innovations and a better understanding of light transport and heat transfer.

The discovery also could help create synthetic materials and structures that realize the phenomenon, named after Nobel laureate Philip Anderson, whose theory describes how electrons can be brought to a complete halt in materials due to their “scattering and defects.” The new findings relate not to electrons, but to light transport.

Researchers demonstrated how the nano-architecture of the silk fibers is capable of light “confinement,” a trait that could provide a range of technological applications including innovations that harness light for new types of medical therapies and biosensing. This light-confinement effect in biological and natural tissue, which was unexpected, is made possible by the Anderson localization of light, said Young Kim, an associate professor in Purdue University’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

The new findings suggest silk fibers may represent “natural metamaterials” and “natural metastructures,” Kim said.

The Anderson localization creates “modes” that make confinement of light possible without carefully engineered periodic structures. Instead, the same confinement is possible with disordered, more random designs.

 “We found that most transmission of light disappears in most of the silk surface. However, counterintuitively, in a small area we found that the energy is confined, and this confined energy is transmitted through localized modes,” Kim said. “The localized mode is a unique pathway for energy flow.”

Although biological structures such as silk diffuse light, other natural materials with similar microstructures do not possess the localized, modes making Anderson localization of light possible.

“Such a difference makes silk particularly interesting for radiative heat transfer.” Kim said.  The silk has a high emissivity for infrared light, meaning it readily radiates heat, or infrared radiation, while at the same time being a good reflector of solar light. Because the strong reflectivity from Anderson localization is combined with the high emissivity of the biomolecules in infrared radiation, silk radiates more heat than it absorbs, making it ideal for passive, or “self-cooling.”