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Published on September 14th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Spidey Would Drool Over This Carbon Nanotube + Spider Silk Combo

September 14th, 2013 by  

We’ve been so busy following the latest graphene news that we almost forgot all about our two our other fave “miracle” materials of the new millenium, carbon nanotubes and spider silk, but it looks like Florida State University has given us a chance to catch up on both at the same time. A research team at FSU spearheaded by physicist Peter Parker Eden Steven has been working on a way to combine the conductive properties of carbon nanotubes with the strength and flexibility of spider silk to create lightweight fibers for the next generation of super-efficient, super-small electronic devices.

Aside from the energy efficiency angle (to say nothing of the improvement over Spiderman’s current formulation), the new research also contributes to a next generation of electronic devices, including photovoltaics, that relies less on exotic, toxic and non-renewable materials, and more on abundant or biobased substances.

Whaddaya Get When You Cross Carbon Nanotubes With Spider Silk?

You can find a full writeup of the carbon nanotube/spider silk combo in Nature Communications, but for our purposes the abstract sums it up nicely:

Understanding the compatibility between spider silk and conducting materials is essential to advance the use of spider silk in electronic applications…Here we report a strong affinity of amine-functionalised multi-walled carbon nanotubes for spider silk, with coating assisted by a water and mechanical shear method. The nanotubes adhere uniformly and bond to the silk fibre surface to produce tough, custom-shaped, flexible and electrically conducting fibres after drying and contraction.

Basically, Steven and his team went out into the woods, harvested some wild-growing spider silk by hand, separated it into strands and coated it with carbon nanotubes. They simply softened up the silk with water to get the nanotubes to stick (more on that later).

New conducting fiber combines spider silk with carbon nanotubes.

Spiderman (cropped/flipped) by natalie’s new york.

Once the silk dries and contracts, the result is a durable, flexible electrically conducting fiber that can be fabricated into custom shapes without losing efficiency. The fiber also adapts itself to changes in humidity, without the need for chemical additives or other stabilizers.

Spider Silk And Water

While much of the research into spider silk focuses on its strength (five times stronger than steel!), the interaction of spider silk with water is also of great interest. In particular, the US Navy is looking to the adherent properties of spider silk to develop new underwater adhesives.

Last summer, the Navy embarked on a two-year research project with Utah State University to explore the properties of piriform, a type of spider silk that acts like microscopic Velcro except that it does not require a matching “sister” surface to attach to. The goal is to develop a synthetic version that can attach to any wet surface (alternatively, the Navy could consult with Peter Parker, who seems to have developed a piriform of his own).

The Air Force And Spider Silk

Not to be outdone, the Air Force has been funding a project with the University of Wyoming on a project to use goat milk as a genetic platform for manufacturing artificial spider silk, with the goal of producing a lightweight material that could replace Kevlar and conventional parachute silk.

The project has probably progressed considerably since we last checked in 2008, when researchers estimated that you would need to milk 200 goats to produce one vest, but in the meantime other projects are under way to tweak silkworms and bacteria into producing spider silk.

As for Spiderman, we’re guessing that the webslinger would have a field day with carbon nanotube-doped spider silk. Just imagine the possibilities of electrified spider silk shooting from your spinnarets as you go about your daily commute.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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