|15 February 2017|

UK/US

The unique spinning technique of a venomous spider could inspire the development of materials strong enough to protect astronauts from drifting space debris, according to new research.

From observing the deadly Brown recluse spider (pictured) a team of UK and US researchers discovered the arachnid’s novel spinning technique strengthened the silk it makes.

The scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, along with a team from the Applied Science Department at Virginia’s College of William & Mary, found that unlike other spiders, who produce round ribbons of thread, recluse silk is thin and flat.

Professor Hannes Schniepp from William & Mary explains: “The theory of knots adding strength is well proven. But adding loops to synthetic filaments always seems to lead to premature fibre failure. Observation of the recluse spider provided the breakthrough solution; unlike all spiders its silk is not round, but a thin, nano-scale flat ribbon. The ribbon shape adds the flexibility needed to prevent premature failure, so that all the microloops can provide additional strength to the strand.”

By using computer simulations to apply this technique to synthetic fibres, the team were able to test and prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the strength of the material.

William & Mary PhD student Sean Koebley added: “We were able to prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the toughness of a simple synthetic sticky tape. Our observations open the door to new fibre technology inspired by the brown recluse.”

Speaking on how the recluse’s technique could be applied more broadly in the future, Professor Fritz Vollrath, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: “Computer simulations demonstrate that fibres with many loops would be much, much tougher than those without loops. This right away suggests possible applications. For example carbon filaments could be looped to make them less brittle, and thus allow their use in novel impact absorbing structures. One example would be spider-like webs of carbon-filaments floating in outer space, to capture the drifting space debris that endangers astronaut lives’ and satellite integrity.”

The team’s study was published their studt in the journal Material Horizons.

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