May 08, 2015 07:44 PM EDT
One of the most amazing materials in nature has got to be spider silk. Although thinner than a human hair, it is stronger by weight than steel, can be stretched up to four times its original length, and is about as durable as Kevlar - of bullet proof vest fame.
Yet Italian scientists have recently improved on Mother Nature by applying the latest in nanomaterials technology to those notorious web spinners. Introducing the graphene spiders.
Here's how they did it. Nicola Pugno and a team from the University of Trento in Italy chased down spiders within their lab and sprayed five of them with a mixture of water and graphene particles. Graphene is a thin layer of tightly packed carbon atoms, bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. It is the thinnest compound known to man, at only one atom thick, as well as the lightest and strongest compound yet discovered. Stacked together, they form graphite.
While they were at it, they also sprayed 10 spiders with carbon nanotubes (which is graphene rolled into a tube) mixed with water, so that they could compare the effects of the two mixtures.
The moderate spider death toll aside, the results were impressive. The best results were achieved using the nanotubes mixture. Some of the spiders sprayed with nanotubes produced silk around 3.5 times as strong as that woven by the giant riverine orb spider, known throughout the animal kingdom for their sturdy webs. These industrious arachnids can weave webs over 6 meters high and tough enough to ensnare small birds. They are the true web masters.
Although the team's high-tech webs were impressively strong, the scientists are still puzzled by how the spiders actually incorporate the materials into their silk. Perhaps the spray actually penetrates the spider and is then combined with the silk. Another theory is that the spiders merely mop up the spray from their surroundings, thereby coating the web as it is created.
Who knows? The research is in its infancy, but according to the team, its applications could be limitless. Since its discovery in 2004, graphene has had the tech world buzzing. Its unbeatable strength combined with its lightweight construction could be used in planes, medical scanners, batteries, and spacecraft. It could even replace Kevlar in bullet proof vests.
Scientists believe graphene will revolutionize technology of the future. Because it provides an airtight surface, it could be used in food packaging, boat construction, vehicle rustproofing - basically anything that has to be protected from air loss will be improved using graphene.
Unfortunately, graphene is still incredibly difficult to produce, so until materials engineers can devise a more practical means of production, researchers will have to stick to spraying spiders.
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