The intersection of spiders and man is a hot media property these days. Peter Parker gets bitten by an irradiated spider, and he gets most of the spider’s powers (as opposed to, say, cancer). Now in real life, we’re doing the spiders one better: Spraying spiders with mixtures of graphene or carbon nanotubes and water leads them to produce stronger silk – up to 3.5 times as strong as the strongest natural silk, according to researchers at the University of Trento, Italy.
Graphene, or sheets of carbon just one atom thick, is about the strongest man-made materials on Earth, followed closely by carbon nanotubes. Similarly, spider silk is among the strongest materials produced in nature. So strong, in fact, that scientists have been unable to produce something that matches its strength in all facets. In order to see whether there could be some synergies between the two, the Italian researchers gathered five spiders and sprayed them with a mixture of water and graphene. They sprayed 10 additional spiders with a mixture of water and carbon nanotubes in order to compare the two. The silk they produced was compared to that of the giant riverine orb spider, which produces some of the strongest silk in the world.
As it turns out, the scheme wasn’t as hair-brained as it may sound. While some of the spiders produced inferior webbing, other saw their webs increase in strength. One spider in particular, sprayed with carbon nanotubes, produced silk 3.5 times stronger than the strongest natural silk. Some spiders produced no webbing at all, as spraying them with mixtures of carbon and water caused for of them to die.
The researchers aren’t sure why the carbon infusion caused some spiders to produce stronger webbing. It’s possible that the graphene and nanotube layers sprayed on the spiders’ abdomens could coat the silk as it was extracted, the the scientists don’t believe there was enough of it to make such a difference. They believe it’s possible that spiders somehow absorb whatever is in their environment and incorporate it into their silk. That may explain why some of them died.
There’s not much to be gained at this stage of the research, as they’re still dealing with a material that’s the result of two other materials: One we can produce, and one we can’t. However, it’s possible that further testing could lead to some sort of advanced, synthesized material over time. The scientists, clearly drunk at this point, believe such a material could be woven into a giant net to catch aircraft falling out of the sky.