Spider silk is already an amazingly strong stuff, and parachutes could soon be made out of spider webs.
The silk spun by spiders combines great strength with lightness and flexibility — as any flying insect will testify — but enhancing those qualities so spider webs can hold humans has seemed fanciful.
Now, however, Italian and British researchers have succeeded in combining spider silk with graphene and carbon nanotubes, producing a composite material five times stronger.
To achieve this, the scientists — led by Prof. Nicola Pugno from Italy’s University of Trento — first fed “special” water to three species of spiders. What made it special? Dispersed within it were microscopic flakes of graphene, or carbon nanotubes (which are made of rolled-up sheets of graphene). Taking the form of a one-atom-thick sheet of linked carbon atoms, graphene is currently the world’s strongest material.
When silk was subsequently gathered from the spiders, it was found that the graphene/nanotubes had been passed into the fibers. As a result, its tensile strength and toughness were much higher than that of regular spider silk.
“We found that the strongest silk the spiders spun had a fracture strength up to 5.4 gigapascals (GPa), and a toughness modulus up to 1,570 joules per gram (J/g),” says Pugno. “Normal spider silk, by comparison, has a fracture strength of around 1.5 GPa and a toughness modulus of around 150 J/g.
“This is the highest fibre toughness discovered to date, and a strength comparable to that of the strongest carbon fibres or limpet teeth,” he adds. “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.”
The research was published in the journal 2D Materials.
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