Spiderman’s train-stopping silk set to become a reality

Spider silk technologies, which could see the super-strong material being produced commercially, will give people the possibility of being like comic book hero Spider-Man as it will be strong enough to stop a train.

However unlike the superhero, altering your DNA to produce a superstrong web will not be necessary.

Scientists at Utah State University have been working on the synthetic silk to try and create the strong fibres, and their work shows that they could be as strong as the webs created by Spider-Man.

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Randy Lewis, a professor of biology and biological engineering at  Utah State University told Chemical and Engineering News that the spider silk could have he ability to stop a train as in the Spider-Man 2 movie.

“We calculated roughly how thick the fibers were, how many of them he had attached to the walls, how much the locomotive and people weighed, and how fast it appeared to be going.” He added: “Spider-Man would have been able to stop that train.”

The silk, which is stronger than Kevlar and more elastic than nylon, is being developed by Lewis and other scientists at the University. The team are looking at how they can synthetically develop the silks for mass production.

One of the most useful applications for the technology could be for use in bullet proof jackets. The strength of the silk, which is a protein, may help to produce jackets that will further improve the lives of those wearing them.

The university says its work could also result in spider silk proteins being able to form durable and long-wearing artificial ligaments for people who have injured their knees or shoulders.

It says the secret to producing large quantities of spider silk is to use ‘factories’ designed to manufacture spider silk proteins that are easily scaleable and efficient. In total, six different kinds of silk are produced by orb-web weaving spiders. The fibres, which have different mechanical properties, are so effective that they have hardly evolved in millions of years.

The scientists say recent developments could now see the technology becoming useable for commercial production. In 2012 the university created a spin-off company called Araknitek to help develop the technologies.

It has been working with goats that produce milk containing an extra protein that can be spun into spider silk thread. However they’re not the only ones to be working with the silk. German company AMSilk has started to sell spider silk protein to producers of shampoos and cosmetics.


Spider image courtesy of Surftideuk via Flickr under creative commons licence.


Flexible, near-transparent, ultrathin material heralds revolution in e-readers, wearables and solar energy

A new material that is only a few atoms thick could one day be the staple of solar panels, e-readers and a host of wearable technology after researchers built a series of demonstration devices to prove its ability to harness or emit light.

The material, which is named tungsten diselenide, is one of a group of materials that are just one molecule thick. Following advancements in nanotechnology, scientists are racing to investigate the potential of these materials for use in electronic devices that source, detect and control light, known at optoelectronics.

The research, which was undertaken by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), involved using tungsten diselenide to create a working diode that could be used to make a variety of optoelectronic devices.

Although the diode was just a working prototype, Mitsui career development associate professor of physics Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, who oversaw the research, said that its properties were “very close to the ideal”.

The technology has enormous potential within optoelectronics. Perhaps most significant of these is the possibilities for photovoltaics.

 MIT LED

The material could be used to make solar panels that were only millimetres thick, almost entirely transparent and very flexible. These could be used to turn almost any exterior surface into a solar panel – windows, walls and whole building facades could be wrapped in the material with minimal effect on appearance, potentially turning whole cities into massive solar power stations.

Buildings are not the only thing that this ultrathin solar panel could be attached to, however. The flexible nature of the material makes it suitable as part of clothing, meaning it could be worn by individuals and used to charge their smartphones, laptops and other devices.

The material’s other uses also lean towards wearables. One of the main uses is for LEDs, but with one advantage – unlike many other forms of LEDs, MIT says that “it should be possible to make LEDs that produce any colour”.

This could potentially make for a flexible surface with light patterns of video feeds that are tailored into clothing. It could also be idea for heads-up displays in cars and other vehicles, as well as for tables, kitchen worktops or other household services.


“The material could be used to make solar panels that were only millimetres thick, almost entirely transparent and very flexible.”


In an LED form the material could also be used to create an amazing e-reader – transparent and highly flexible but clearly displaying any content required.

The material can also be used to make photodetectors, or sensors that detect light. These are used across an enormous range of applications, from digital photography to medical devices. So if tungsten diselenide were to take off as a material, it could have wide-ranging impacts on many everyday gadgets and technologies.

The researchers also believe that the material could provide benefits in terms of speed and power consumption due to the material’s minute thickness.

Tungsten diselenide is made using selenium, a trace element that is found in metal sulfide ores, and which is a by-product of copper production.

If this material were to take off, selenium could – at least to some extent – replace silicon in electronic devices, which may pose a problem as there is less selenium on earth than there is silicon.

However, this may not be such a problem, as MIT postdoc Hugh Churchill explains: “It’s thousands or tens of thousands of times thinner [than conventional materials], so you’d use thousands of times less material to make devices of a given size.”


Body image courtesy of MIT.