Materials science researchers have been trying to harness the power of spider silk for a long time. The substance is unbelievably strong, comparable to steel, and incredibly stretchy, as anyone who has walked into a spider web knows. We have yet to find a way to harvest spider silk for human use, a new experiment which reveals that infusing it with graphene produces the strongest fiber ever measured should motivate scientists to figure that out as soon as possible.
Emiliano Lepore at the University of Trento in Italy sprayed 15 Pholcidae spiders with carbon nanotubes and graphene flakes, two super strong carbon-based materials. Miraculously, these materials ended up in the spiders’ silk, resulting in a fiber that is stronger than even Kevlar.
The researchers are still scratching their heads about exactly how the fiber was created. The best theory is that the spiders consumed the graphene and nanotubes along with the water they were sprayed with, and that these somehow made their way into the silk they spun. Others have suggested that perhaps the materials were merely coating the outside of the web, but Lepore and his team don’t buy this. “Such external coating on the fibre surface is not expected to significantly contribute to the observed mechanical strengthening,” they said.
There are great, if distant, possibilities for this discovery. The substance could be used to repair human tissues or to make protective garments. Lepore’s group also believes they may be able to use the same process on other organisms. “This new reinforcing procedure could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of bionic materials,” they say. If this was able to work with silkworms, it’d be a huge step forward, as they are already used to produce material on an industrial scale. Meanwhile, researchers will keep trying to get spiders to do our bidding.
[via MIT Technology Review]