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Carbon nanotube-coated spiders spin super strong silk

Researchers discovered the phenomenon after spraying a handful of arachnids called cellar spiders with a graphene-water solution.

By Brooks Hays
Carbon nanotube-coated spiders spin super strong silk
A cellar spider hangs in its silk web. Photo by Obsidian Soul/CC

TRENTO, Italy, May 5 (UPI) -- According to new research out of Italy, spiders sprayed with graphene and carbon nanotubes spin silk that is extra strong and stretchy -- an engineering wonder, part synthetic, part natural.

Graphene has been the darling of material science research for some time. Graphene is a material built of single atom-thick layers of graphite. The atoms in each layer are organized in a lattice-like structure. Graphene is flexible, strong, hyper-conductive, and has an endless list of commercial and technological applications.

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In some ways, graphene replaced scientists' obsession with the silk threads spun by spiders, admired for many of the same qualities. Now, scientists have found a unique way to combine the advantages of the two materials.

Researchers discovered the phenomenon after spraying a handful of arachnids called cellar spiders with a graphene-water solution. The graphene particles suspended in the solution measured between 200 and 300 nanometers wide.

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The team of researchers -- lead by Nicola Pugno of the University of Trento in Italy -- sprayed another group of spiders with a mixture of water and carbon nanotubes, another material admired for its unusual structural attributes.

While some of the sprayed spiders produced subpar silk, several from both groups spun extra-strong silk. The best silk fibers were spun by a cellar spider coated with the nanotube solution. The silk was 3.5 times strong than the strongest silk found in nature, produced by the giant riverine orb spider.

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How the graphene and nanotubes ended up in the silk strands remains a mystery. It's possible that the solution leaked onto the silk as it exited the spider's spinneret.

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But Pugno and his colleagues believe spiders have a biological mechanism for absorbing materials from their surroundings and incorporating them into their threads. For a few of the spiders, that strategy didn't pay off. Four died not long after being sprayed. But for others, the solution offered super powers.

But what might graphene-enhanced silk be used for? Pugno isn't sure.

"This concept could become a way to obtain materials with superior characteristics," he told New Scientist -- like a giant stretchable net strong enough to catch falling aircraft.

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Pugno's research is scheduled to be published in the journal Materials Science.

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