Spiders Sprayed With Carbon Nanotubes Spin Superstrong Webs

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Spider-Man's got nothing on these nanotube-soaked web spinners. Chen-Pan Liao [CC by 3.0]/Wikimedia

Imagine how strong Spider-Man might have been if he had been bit by one of these superspiders. Italian scientists have found that spiders sprayed with a liquid solution containing carbon nanotubes and graphene can spin superstrong webs, reports New Scientist.

Because graphene is one of the strongest artificial materials ever created, and because spider silk is one of the strongest natural fibers, scientists were curious what might happen if the two materials were combined. And who better to construct the material than nature's master web spinners themselves, spiders? The trick was just in figuring out how to coax spiders into using carbon nanostructures as a building material.

It turns out, all it takes is to soak the spiders in a spray containing the carbon materials, and they simply go to work with it.

Researchers collected a handful of spiders in the Pholcidae family — commonly called "cellar spiders" — and sprayed each of them to observe the effects. Sadly, four of the spiders died shortly after being doused, but the rest of the spiders survived and spun a variety of curious webs. Some of the silk was subpar, but some of it — especially the silk spun by spiders sprayed with carbon nanotubes specifically — was extremely strong. In fact, the superstrong silk was found to be 3.5 times stronger than the strongest spider silk ever recorded, that of the giant riverine orb spider.

It remains unclear exactly how the spiders incorporated the carbon materials into their webs, but scientists don't believe it's as simple as the silk becoming drenched in the carbon solution as it exits the spiders' bodies. Rather, they believe the spiders are adept at making use of materials in their environment "on the fly," as ingredients for their silk.

One possible use for the research will be in the development of a new supermaterial. It could also make silk spun by spiders more utilized. Most natural silk is collected from silkworms, since their silk is easier to harvest than spider silk, but spider silk has many outstanding qualities that other natural silks do not. Perhaps if spiders prove more proficient at spinning this new superstrong silk, it could make harvesting silk from spiders more viable.

"This concept could become a way to obtain materials with superior characteristics," explained Nicola Pugno, one of the researchers involved in the study.