Scientists add carbon nanotubes to spider silk, create ridiculously strong fibers

carbon nanotube spider silk
Spider silk is arguably one of the most amazing materials known to man. Despite being extremely lightweight and ductile, it’s also ridiculously strong, with tensile strength that rivals that of alloy steel. It’s already one of the strongest fibers found in nature — but believe it or not, a team of researchers at the University of Trento, Italy have figured out a way to make it even stronger.

The team’s approach was relatively straightforward. They started with 15 Pholcidae spiders collected from the Italian countryside, which they kept in controlled conditions in their lab. After collecting dragline silk samples to use as a reference, the researchers then sprayed the spiders with a nanotube-infused water solution and measured the strength of the silk they produced.

Some of the spiders spun sub-par silk, and a few of them even dropped dead after being sprayed with the solution. But a few of them proceeded to do something amazing — they produced nanotube-reinforced silk draglines with strength and toughness far beyond any fiber ever created.

To measure the mechanical properties of the silk, the researchers placed each fiber between two C-shaped cardboard holders, and then put them inside a special device that can measure the load on a fiber in a number of different ways.

The results were impressive — if a tad bit confusing. “We measure a fracture strength up to 5.4 GPa, a Young’s modulus up to 47.8 GPa, and a toughness modulus up to 2.1 GPa,” the researchers explain. That probably doesn’t make much sense to you unless you’re a physicist or an engineer, but to help put those numbers in perspective, one gigapascal (GPa) is equal to 145,037 pounds per square inch (which isn’t exactly the best measurement for tensile strength, but you get the idea). “This is the highest toughness modulus for a fibre,” the team says, “surpassing synthetic polymeric high performance fibers (e.g. Kevlar49) and even the current toughest knotted fibers.”

Obviously, a fiber this strong would have a huge number of potential applications. You could use it to build bridges, bulletproof clothing, and maybe even a space elevator — but there’s still quite a lot of research to be done. Before any of that crazy stuff can happen, the researchers first need to figure out why their method works.

At this point, it isn’t 100 percent clear how the spiders incorporate the carbon nanotubes into their silk. One theory is that the silk becomes coated with nanotubes after it’s spun out. The researchers can’t rule this possibility out until further research is conducted, but they say that it’s unlikely because simply adding an external nanotube coating to the silk wouldn’t have created such a strong fiber.

The other theory — the one that the researchers suspect is more likely — is that the spiders actually ingested the carbon water after being sprayed with it, and the nanotubes ended up being incorporated into their silk as it was spun out. In this way, the nanotubes would be central to the silk cable construction and therefore have the biggest impact on its strength.

And of course, once that issue has been figured out, even more challenges lie ahead. We’ll also need to come up with an effective way to mass produce spider silk (beyond some initial success a few years ago with genetically engineered goats that were made to produce it in their milk). Only then will this material be available for something other than catching overweight flies.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

‘Guerrilla rainstorm’ warning system aims to prevent soakings, or worse

Japanese researchers have created a "guerrilla rainstorm" early-warning system aimed at preventing severe soakings, or worse. The team hopes to launch the system before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Outdoors

High-tech but low-key, these are the amazing materials inside your outdoor gear

We take a look at some of the materials that are used in the creation of our favorite outdoor gear, making our jackets, sleeping bags, tents, and other items warmer, drier, and more comfortable even in harsh weather conditions.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘Norsemen’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Gaming

Take to the virtual skies with these free flight simulators

You don't have to spend the entirety of your paycheck to become a virtual ace, at least when it comes to flight simulation. Our list of the best free flight simulators will let you unleash your inner Maverick.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

NASA to launch SPHEREx mission to investigate the origins of our universe

NASA is launching an ambitious mission to map the entire sky to understand the origins of the universe. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission will launch in 2023.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.
Emerging Tech

How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. But these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?
Emerging Tech

Statistician raises red flag about reliability of machine learning techniques

Machine learning is everywhere in science and technology. But how reliable are these techniques really? A statistician argues that questions of accuracy and reproducibility of machine learning have not been fully addressed.
Emerging Tech

Chandra X-ray telescope uncovers evidence of the universe’s missing matter

Where is all of the matter in the universe? NASA's Chandra telescope has uncovered evidence of hot gas strands in the vicinity of a quasar which could explain the missing third of matter which has puzzled astronomers for years.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? You totally can with these top-of-the-line drones

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Emerging Tech

Here’s how Facebook taught its Portal A.I. to think like a Hollywood filmmaker

When Facebook introduced its Portal screen-enhanced smart speakers, it wanted to find a way to make video chat as intimate as sitting down for a conversation with a friend. Here's how it did it.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s space observatory will map the sky with unprecedented detail

NASA is preparing to launch a cutting-edge space observatory to create the most detailed map ever produced of the sky. Doing so will involve surveying hundreds of millions of galaxies. Here's how it plans to do it.