Self-assembling silk lasers

Original paper: 3D coffee stains

When I first learned about the coffee ring effect I thought it was super cool, but it seemed like an open-and-shut case. Why do rings form where some liquids, like spilled coffee, are left to dry? Roughness on the table causes the liquid to spread imperfectly across the surface, pinning the edges of the droplet in place with a fixed diameter. Because the diameter of the droplet can’t change during evaporation, new liquid must flow from the droplet’s center to the edges. This flow also pushes dissolved coffee particles to the edges of the droplet, where they are left behind to form a ring as the water evaporates away (Figure 1). More details can be found in our previous post, here. It’s a complicated phenomenon, but after being described in 1997 it doesn’t seem like anything new would be going on here. Right? Well, as usually happens in science, classic concepts have a way of popping back up in unexpected ways. Last year Itır Bakış Doğru and her colleagues in Prof. Nizamoğlu’s group at Koç University, Turkey published a study using the often troublesome coffee ring effect to their advantage: making self-assembling silk lasers.

Figure 1: Pinning and the Coffee Ring Effect. A cross section of a water droplet drying on a smooth surface (A) versus a rough surface (B). On a smooth surface the droplet shrinks due to evaporation. On a rough surface the edge of the droplet is pinned and cannot shrink, forcing an internal flow to maintain the droplet’s shape.

The fundamentals here are the same as the classic coffee ring effect, but instead of coffee particles Doğru’s droplets hold a colloidal suspension of silk fibroin proteins. In a colloidal suspension, particles (such as proteins) are mixed in another material (such as water) and neither dissolve fully into solution nor precipitate out. Smoke, milk, and jelly are all examples of colloids. Harnessing the coffee ring effect to build 2D structures out of colloidal particles has been well developed since Witten’s description of the coffee ring effect in 1997 [1], but 3D self-assembly is much less common. What makes Doğru’s 3D structures possible is the fibroin protein.

Fibroin is the primary component of silk from the silkworm Bombyx mori. These fibers have been used by humans for thousands of years to make textiles, but recently the fibroin protein has taken on new life when extracted from silk as an aqueous, water-based, suspension and regenerated into other forms [2,3]. Fibroin proteins are long, and they easily tangle up and bond to each other to form networks of layered crystalline structures called beta-sheets (β-sheets) (Figure 2). These sheets give silk fibers and other fibroin materials strength and toughness. Furthermore, fibroin materials are biocompatible and biodegradable.

Silk Fibroin and Beta Sheets
Figure 2: Silk Fibroin And β-sheets. Silk is made of long fibroin proteins (a) that have a repeating molecular structure. These proteins bond together into β-sheets (b), which then stack together (c) to form materials with high strength and toughness.

To create 3D structures with the coffee ring effect, Doğru, Nizamoğlu, and their coworkers put droplets of silk solution on superhydrophobic surfaces. Superhydrophobic surfaces strongly repel water, preventing water-based liquids from spreading flat across the surface and making the droplets stand straight up during the drying process. This makes the angle between the edge of the droplet and the surface (called the contact angle) particularly high, between 95-145 degrees throughout evaporation. The interaction between water and the superhydrophobic surface determines the shape of the final structure, with high contact angles creating more spherical droplets (Figure 3). After a solid 2D ring of fibroin forms on the bottom, the silk proteins continue to stack along the droplet’s surface, forming a stable spherical shell of β-sheets that the remaining water can evaporate through. The researchers found that the concentration of the fibroin solution was important for controlling the final structure. If the solution is too dilute then the shell will collapse in on itself, but if the fibroin concentration is too high the initial contact angle will be lower and the final structure will also be more 2D than 3D.

Contact Angle
Figure 3: Contact Angle. Droplets of the same solution show different contact angles on different surfaces (as adapted from Doğru’s paper). On the left is a mildly hydrophobic surface, and on the right is a superhydrophobic surface. Note how the size of the contact angle (shown in white) increases with the hydrophobicity of the surface.

To make 3D spheres, the researchers tried the pendant drop method, hanging a droplet from the tip of a needle. Similar to getting high contact angles from a droplet on a hydrophobic surface, hanging a droplet from a needle gives that droplet a small contact area, and a spherical shape (Figure 4). If the diameter of the needle is the same size or smaller than the contact area of the droplet on a superhydrophobic surface, then the shape of a droplet squeezed out of the needle should be as or more spherical than the droplets in the previous experiment. In this study, the pendant drop method ends up producing more uniform drying. These pendant-drop shells are smooth enough inside to act as optical resonators, surfaces that reflect light waves back on themselves so the waves amplify each other (the “a” in “laser,” which I always forget comes from the acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”).

As a proof of concept, the researchers made shells out of fibroin mixed with green fluorescent protein (GFP). Fibroin β-sheet formation is so stable that it still happens when small amounts of other materials are present, so the optical resonator can form in the same way it did with a fibroin-only solution. In this case, because GFP has been added, when the structure is exposed to the right light source it will amplify green light emitted by the shell itself – an “all protein laser” in the making.

Benefits of the Hanging Pendant Drop
Figure 4: Benefits of the Hanging Pendant Drop. The hanging pendant drop method can produce similar spherical drops to a hydrophobic surface. It was shown that the pendant drop method produces more spherical final structures (adapted from Doğru’s paper).

Part of what’s exciting about this publication is that the authors harness the coffee ring effect for a fun new type of small scale, self-directed 3D “printing.” They showed that the method works for other polymers as well, but I agree with their choice to highlight the silk protein fibroin. Not only is fibroin biocompatible, but it also has the potential to be more environmentally friendly to process than other polymers and is already produced in large quantities globally as part of the textile industry.


[1] Han, W. and Lin, Z. “Learning from ‘Coffee Rings’: Ordered Structures Enabled by Controlled Evaporative Self-Assembly.” Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 51 (2012): 1534–1546.

[2] Altman, G.H. et al. “Silk-based biomaterials.” Biomaterials 24 (2003): 401–416.

[3] Koh, L.-D. et al. “Structures, mechanical properties and applications of silk fibroin materials.” Prog. Polym. Sci. 46 (2015): 86–110.

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