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.
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.