Quirks & Quarks

Scientists one up Spider-Man by feeding spiders an atomic super liquid

Spiders spin super-strong webs when they drink nanomaterials.
Nicola Pugno studies the mechanics spiders use to spin their webs. (Alessio Coser/Ansa)

The idea behind the super-spider web

Spider-Man, Spider-Man. Have you heard he does whatever a spider can?

Perhaps most memorable is his ability to spin a web of any size. Those webs are super-strong too — enough to slow down a speeding car in an instant, or catch thieves (just like flies).

Now scientists are one-upping Hollywood's famed arachnid-empowered hero.

They're feeding spiders an atomic super-food, of sorts. And the results are even more super. Dr. Nicola Pugno, a professor of solid and structural mechanics at the University of Trento in Italy, conducted the experiment.

He says they wanted to combine the spider web with graphene to harness one of the toughest natural materials with the strongest artificial materials.

The strongest artificial material

High-strength steel has a toughness of one gigapascale, which is about the same as natural spider silk, Pugno says. 

When he fed spiders solutions containing nanomaterials, the spiders produced bionic silk that was more than three times as strong as unmodified silk, and 10 times as tough.   

Huge applications

"You can imagine to produce extremely strong fibres, tissue, tissue with additional functionalities, for example even from a conductive, electrical point of view, with different thermal properties, so we can store energy, for example," Pugno says. "The applications I can imagine are huge." 

What's more, spiders produce silk at room temperature while engineers usually need to use high temperatures and high pressure to accomplish the same feat.