British scientists from the University of Oxford and French scientists from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie have tried to develop a fiber with a “liquid wire” technique. This synthetic fiber was inspired in the solid and liquid properties of spider webs. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Researchers conducted a new investigation in which they discovered another outstanding attribute of spider webs. According to the reports, orb spiders, a common garden spider, produce a capture silk that can be permanently taut, even after it’s stretched several times its original length. It also contracts without sagging in the air, which is quite a liquid property.

Scientists simulate spider web
British and French scientists develop a fiber with a “liquid wire” technique which was inspired in the solid and liquid properties of spider webs. Credit: NPR

According to a report published by Gizmodo, spider silk is considered one of the most extraordinary materials found in nature, because it is two to three times tougher that some of the strongest synthetic materials, including Kevlar and nylon. This strength is all thanks to a tensile strength comparable to steel, and elasticity commensurate with rubber. And as if it wasn’t enough, spider silk it’s also sticky antimicrobial, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable.

Researchers were investigating the mechanism responsible for enabling a spider’s web to remain taut without tangling and to catch heavy insects without being destroyed by their weight, The Christian Science Monitor said in a report. By doing so, scientists discovered a huge amount of glue-like droplets, which make the web sticky in order to help the spiders catch their prey and even spontaneously repair possible tears in the web.

The interest on spiders’ silk

Scientists have always been interested in spider silk because of its incredible strength, tautness and its ability to stretch without sagging in the wind. Spider gossamers are, basically, fibers coated in watery glue, and this composition is what the research team tried to emulate in their experiment.

Even when spiders consider their gossamer just as a high-tech trap, the truth is that its properties can provide a big amount of ideas and possibilities to the worlds of materials engineering, and even medicine, said the study’s co-researcher, Hervé Elettro, from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie.

According to researcher Fritz Vollrath, from Oxford University, the huge amount of tiny droplets of glue that cover capture of the spider’s orb web have many functions other than making the silk sticky and catch the fly.

Study author, Arnaud Antkowiak, said in a New Scientist report that even going up to 95 percent, the silk remains taut because it adapt its length in order to size into the space that needs to be filled. There are other materials that behave the same way but unlike the spider silks, that are solid, these are liquid. Researchers believe that the spiral silk works as a hybrid material that blends both solid and liquid properties.

Possible applications for the findings

Researchers believe that this brand new liquid wire technology is likely to be used in the microfabrication of complex structures, such as the construction of miniature motors and creation of stretchable, hybrid solid-liquid materials for several purposes in biotechnology. However, researchers haven’t announced any specific project based on the study yet.

“These new insights could lead to a wide range of applications, such as microfabrication of complex structures, reversible micro-motors, or self-tensioned stretchable systems,” explained first author Dr. Herve Elettro.

He added that their hybrid threads could be created from virtually any component.

Researchers discovered that spiders produce some kind of “hybrid” substance that’s watery glue deposited in tiny drops onto the threads for their web. These components are responsible for keeping the silky threads taut even after being stretched out. Researchers used those findings to replicate the properties of spiders silk.

“When a piece of silk is pulled on or stretched out, it spools within the droplets, keeping the threads taunt and thusly maintaining the structure of the web,” Slashgear News noted.

Vollrath was surprised to find out that in web’s watery skins there’s enough power to reel in loose bits of thread. Researchers were able to observe and test the webs in their gardens to confirm that this silk’s behavior is what helps in keeping the thread always tight.

In order to create a synthetic wire similar to a spider web, the scientists involved in the project used silicone oil droplets on a plastic filament to achieve a proper balance between fiber elasticity and droplet surface tension. This way they reproduced a material that was able to extend like a solid and compress like a liquid, Tech Times reported.

Source: PNAS