Space & Innovation

What Makes Spider Silk Tougher Than Steel?

Some people say that spider silk is stronger than steel, but is that true? What makes spider webs so tough?

As Peter Parker can readily attest, spider silk is an amazing substance. For several decades running now, scientists have been trying to crack the mystery of this puzzling organic material. Some varieties of spider silk are literally two to three times tougher than the strongest synthetic materials we can make, like Kevlar.

As Julian Huguet explains in this DNews report, emerging technology out of Europe suggests we've only begun to unravel the mysteries of spider silk.

By leveraging a previously unknown property of spider silk, scientists have created a biomimetic hybrid material that acts as both a solid and a liquid. The breakthrough could potentially lead to entirely new materials and technologies.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie observed that the "capture silk" produced by orb spiders always remains taut, even when stretched to many times its original length. What's even weirder is that the tautness is maintained when the thread contracts or compresses.

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The scientists took a closer look -- a much closer look -- and discovered that the silk thread is actually covered in thousands of watery glue droplets, each around a tenth of a millimeter across. These droplets essentially act as liquid-organic spools, reeling the thread in and out while maintaining tension on the line, as it were.

Taking an admirably two-fisted approach to the challenge, the researchers created their own "liquid wire" using composite fibers in the lab. The new fiber is technically classified as a hybrid-state material in that it behaves as both a solid and a liquid.

Such versatility is hard to come by -- in nature or manufacturing -- and researchers suspect the new material will have a broad range of applications. From the research abstract:

"Learning from this natural example of geometry and mechanics, we manufactured programmable liquid wires that present previously unidentified pathways for the design of new hybrid solid–liquid materials."

Check out Julian's video above for some additional hard numbers on spider silk strength, plus a rather excellent Captain America joke.

-- Glenn McDonald

Read More:

Discovery News: Snuggle Up In This Synthetic Spider Silk Coat

Independent: Stronger than steel: Scientists begin to unlock the secrets of spider silk

BBC: Spider silk's flexibility makes webs super-strong