All posts by Daniel Davies

Scientists are making artificial spider webs just like a certain superhero

University of Oxford and Université Pierre et Marie Curie scientists are currently testing what makes spiders’ silk both strong and flexible in order to manufacture artificial webbing.

The university is referring to the new technology as “bio-inspired”, and said its functionality comes from the fact that it extends like a solid but compresses like a liquid, just like a spider’s web.

“Spider silk has been known to be an extraordinary material for around 40 years, but it continues to amaze us. While the web is simply a high-tech trap from the spider’s point of view, its properties have a huge amount to offer the worlds of materials, engineering and medicine,” said the first author and a doctoral researcher at Institut Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Dr Hervé Elettro.

Image courtesy of University of Oxford. Featured image courtesy of Bohbeh / Shutterstock.com

Image courtesy of University of Oxford. Featured image courtesy of Bohbeh / Shutterstock.com

Scientists working on developing the new technology believe that it will have a number of applications.

The webbing is capable of being stretched to many times its original length because any loose thread would be immediately captured inside tiny droplets of watery glue that coat and surround the core fibres that make up the web’s capture spiral.

Because of this it could be used to fabricate complex structures or to create self-tensioned stretchable systems, and according to  Elettro the manufactured webbing could also be created from “virtually any component”.

In studying spider webs, the researchers observed the subtle balance between the fibres elasticity and surface tension.

The team was able to recreate the balance achieved by spiders in the laboratory using oil droplets on a plastic filament. This artificial system behaved just like the spider’s natural winch silk, with spools of filament reeling and unreeling inside the oil droplets as the thread extended and contracted.

“The thousands of tiny droplets of glue that cover the capture spiral of the spider’s orb web do much more than make the silk sticky and catch the fly. Surprisingly, each drop packs enough punch in its watery skins to reel in loose bits of thread.

“This winching behaviour is used to excellent effect to keep the threads tight at all times, as we can all observe and test in the webs in our gardens,” said Professor Fritz Vollrath of the Oxford Silk Group in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.

Factor issue 24: Humanity’s incredible future in space

When it comes to space travel, we are living in a very exciting period of history. After decades of disappointment, serious plans are afoot to send humans further than ever before, and establish liveable spaces beyond our home planet. So in this whopper of an issue of Factor – seriously, we’ve packed more in than ever before – we’re looking at what lies ahead in the world of space exploration.

The commercial space industry is booming, and a number of high-profile names from the world of technology have taken private space travel on as their personal mission. In this issue we ask who is ahead in the billionaire space race, as well as check out what lies ahead for Virgin Galactic now that the company is moving on from its tragic crash.

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Then there’s the matter of space settlements. The European Space Agency has announced plans for a lunar base, so we consider what this will entail, and how achievable a project it is. Plus, we check out the growing area of in-situ manufacturing to see if we really will be printing future space habitats out of local rock, and find out what designing in space will be like for the architects of the future.

We discover the medical prospects for astronauts living beyond Earth, hear from Sandra Magnus, one of history’s lesser-known astronauts, about the realities of going into space, and look at what we learnt from Scott Kelly and Mikhail Korniyenko’s one-year stint on the International Space Station.
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Plus there’s even a look at some of the lesser-known artefacts from the Soviet space programme, as well as an interview with Martin Kenwright, founder of Evolution Studios. We also look at the absurdities that surround the UK Government’s Psychoactive Substance Act.

As well as this there’s all the latest news, details of a workable Batmobile and a Silver Surfer style hoverboard too, in Issue 24 of Factor magazine – out now on iPad and online.