Mechanical Properties of Robust Ultrathin Silk Fibroin Films


  • Some experiments were conducted at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. This work is supported by the AFOSR, F49620-03-1-0273 and FA95500410363 and NSF-CBET-0650705 Grants. We thank Dr. K. J. Wahl (NRL) for fruitful discussion.


Robust ultrathin multilayer films of silk fibroin were fabricated by spin coating and spin-assisted layer-by-layer assembly and their mechanical properties were studied both in tensile and compression modes for the first time. The ultrathin films were characterized by a high elastic modulus of 6–8 GPa (after treatment with methanol) with the ultimate tensile strength reaching 100 MPa. The superior toughness is also many times higher than that usually observed for conventional polymer composites (328 kJ m–3 for the silk material studied here versus typical values of < 100 kJ m–3). These outstanding properties are suggested to be caused by the gradual development of the self-reinforcing microstructure of highly crystalline β-sheets, serving as reinforcing fillers and physical crosslinks, a process that is well known for bulk silk materials but it is demonstrated here to occur in ultrathin films as well, despite their limited dimensions. However, the confined state within films thinner than the lengths of the extended domains causes a significantly reduced elasticity which should be considered in the design of nanosized films from silk materials. Such regenerated silk fibroin films with outstanding mechanical strength have potential applications in microscale biodevices, biocompatible implants, and synthetic coatings for artificial skin.