The sight of a spider can send people shrieking with fear. But researchers in a Tallahassee lab see great potential in spider webs. They’ve used them to make a unique material they hope will offer an eco-friendly alternative to the stuff inside current-day technological devices.
Just outside the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory building, researcher Eden Steven is collecting a material so low-tech, it’s found in the corners of most of our garages. He’s looking for spider webs.
“Normally what I’ll do is, I’ll simply detach one end,” he says as he pokes a long plastic stick into a bush. He’s taped black paper to one end so he can see the webs he collects. Once he snags a web, he rotates the stick until the web completely detaches from a tree branch up above.
“Keep rolling, rolling, rolling,” he says.
Upstairs in the lab, Steven uses tweezers to pick up a tiny bundle of spider web fibers. He says it’s a hundred strands thick, but the whole bundle is no bigger than an eyelash. He dips the tiny bundle into a vial of something called carbon nanotubes. They’re unimaginably small bits of carbon that, when used to coat the spider silk, make it conduct electricity.
Steven says he spent about two months using a traditional chemical method to get the nanotubes to stick to the spider webs, but nothing would work. So he came up with a different approach.
“All we needed really was just water, which is eco-friendly—we drink it,” he says.
Steven and his team believe they’re the first to coat spider silk with carbon nanotubes using just water as an adhesive. Although Scientists around the world have been exploring ways to harness spider webs’ unique abilities—like bending and stretching without breaking and being able to withstand extreme humidity and cold—the MagLab’s eco-friendly, electricity-conducting spider silk wires are getting international attention.
James Brooks, chair of the FSU Physics Department and a co-researcher on the spider silk project, says, “We’re not going to replace silicon, but we can complement various technologies.”
He says before spider silk can make its way into household electronics, scientists will need to find a way to make it synthetically because spiders are simply not prolific enough weavers. But the scientists say, with a growing body of research in bio-nanotechnology, they foresee a time when consumers can choose an eco-friendly version of an electronic device.