Scientists have found a way to make spiders spin webs reinforced with carbon nanotubes, or graphene. But they didn’t do it through robotics, or even fiddling with the spiders' genes. They simply exposed the spiders to some water containing the nanomaterials, which then drank it.
This might sound like the stuff of a cheap superhero or monster movie but rest assured, this is a real scientific study recently published in the journal 2D Materials.
"Humans have used silkworm silks widely for thousands of years, but recent research has focused on spider silk, as it has extremely promising mechanical properties,” project leader Professor Nicola Pugno, of the University of Trento in Italy, said in a statement. “It is among the best-spun polymer fibres in terms of tensile strength, ultimate strain, and especially toughness, even when compared to synthetic fibres such as Kevlar."
He explained that, as we already know biominerals are found in the proteins and hard tissues of insects' jaws, mandibles, and teeth, "our study looked at whether spider silk's properties could be 'enhanced' by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk's biological protein structures."
The researchers tested out this method on three different species of spider and each one produced silk that was super-strong and highly resistant to strain. It isn’t clear how the materials become incorporated into their silk fibers, although it might have something to do with the way the silk is woven as it leaves the spider.
Graphene is around 200 times stronger than steel yet a million times thinner than a human hair. Spider silk is also fiendishly tough. So it’s no surprise that these two components combine to create one of the toughest fibers discovered to date. The resulting fiber is so tough the researchers claim a human could easily lay on it like a hammock.
"These are still early days, but 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," Pugno said. One of the suggested applications is for parachute material.
“Furthermore, this process of the natural integration of reinforcements in biological structural materials could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of “bionicomposites” for innovative applications,” he added.
Now it sounds like a movie.