Long Island teens' silkworm project impresses researchers

- Two teenage scientists on Long Island are shooting for gold with their green science project. Alyssa Iryami and Audrey Shine are still in high school but their experiment using silkworms and graphene is actually being done by researchers with their PhDs.

"We found that we could actually integrate graphene, one of the strongest materials in the world, along with silk, which is one of the strongest naturally produced materials, to create a super material," Alyssa said.

Their 10th-grade project has received both local and international recognition. They're one of only eight teams in the country competing in the Spellman High Voltage Electronics Clean Tech Competition this summer.

"We're so excited to meet people from all over the world and see what they have and we wanted to share what we have," Audrey said. Her family has a history of raising silkworms in China.

They divided 70 worms into groups, only feeding some of them graphene. One group got 4 percent graphene within the leaves they consume while the control group had none, Audrey said. "That was done for the purpose of seeing if there's a difference in the strength of the silk they created," she said.

In the first trial, they found that graphene-fed worms spun stronger silk. After a series of tests on the cocoons, they expect to see the same results with higher accuracy for this batch.

"We also submerge the cocoons in water to see how absorbable they would be," Alyssa said. "And we tested the conductivity of our cocoons and the specific heat."

It is not so much the idea that is new but more so the green way these girls are doing it that can potentially lead to many important applications.

"In many regions like Flint, Michigan, where there is impure water, it could be effective in creating clean water and increasing accessibility," Alyssa said.

Mary Lou O'Donnell, the high school research coordinator, said the girls have a lot of potential after they finish high school in two years.

"They could become material scientists," O'Donnell said. "This could change their lives."

Between now and the competition on July 14, the girls will be creating the prototype filter to test how effective the silk with graphene is at filtering polluted water. Win or lose, it is all part of an invaluable experience. 

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