Engineering news

Graphene and nanotubes give spiders superpowers

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: 5ugarless/ iStock)
(Credit: 5ugarless/ iStock)

In Spiderman, Peter Parker received amazing powers after a bite from a radioactive spider.

Now, spiders themselves have received superpowers, according to a new research. Led by Nicola Pugno from the University of Trento in Italy and Queen Mary in London, a team made spiders’ silk far stronger than before using carbon nanotubes and graphene. The work could potentially pave the way for new high-strength or fire-resistant materials, the researchers said.

Spider silk is already renowned for its “extremely promising” mechanical properties. It is among the best spun polymer fibres for tensile strength, ultimate strain and toughness, even compared to celebrated synthetic materials like Kevlar.

However, Pugno’s team thought they could make the silk even stronger by utilising graphene and carbon nanotubes, and a slightly unusual method of introducing it to three different species of spider.

“To combine the nanomaterials and the silk, we sprayed a corner of the box where the spiders lived with the nanosolution,” said Pugno to Professional Engineering. “The spiders then drank the solution, and the nanomaterials and the silk combined as the spiders span their webs.”

The resulting fibre was up to three times the strength and 10 times the toughness of regular silk – “comparable to that of the strongest carbon fibres,” said Pugno.

“Our results are a proof of concept that paves the way to exploiting the naturally efficient spider spinning process to produce reinforced bionic silk fibres, thus further improving one of the most promising strong materials,” he added.

The team said the discovery could lead to a new class of other “bionicomposite” materials, with artificial materials combined with natural substances from animals or plants. The materials could be useful in engineering applications for their high strength or fire resistance.

Similar fibres could create blast-proof, shrapnel-resistant clothing, sails, parachutes or strain sensors, said Darshil Shah, the co-author of a recent Cambridge paper. Dr Shah and other researchers created artificial strands with many similarities to spider silk. 

"We are able to produce fibres using water as a solvent, and at ambient temperatures and pressures," said Dr Shah to Professional Engineering. "Spider silk is our inspiration as spiders have evolved, over hundreds of millions of years, to produce superb fibres using low energy."

The research was published in 2D Materials.

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