Gary J. Dunderdale, Sarah J. Davidson, Anthony J. Ryan & Oleksandr O. Mykhaylyk
Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3372 (2020)
Synthetic polymers are thoroughly embedded in the modern society and their consumption grows annually. Efficient routes to their production and processing have never been more important. In this respect, silk protein fibrillation is superior to conventional polymer processing, not only by achieving outstanding physical properties of materials, such as high tensile strength and toughness, but also improved process energy efficiency. Natural silk solidifies in response to flow of the liquid using conformation-dependent intermolecular interactions to desolvate (denature) protein chains. This mechanism is reproduced here by an aqueous poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO) solution, which solidifies at ambient conditions when subjected to flow. The transition requires that an energy threshold is exceeded by the flow conditions, which disrupts a protective hydration shell around polymer molecules, releasing them from a metastable state into the thermodynamically favoured crystalline state. This mechanism requires vastly lower energy inputs and demonstrates an alternative route for polymer processing.