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Spider Silk Inspires New, Stronger Materials

May 18, 2015 12:19 PM EDT

Spider silk has long been admired for its graceful, yet steel-like structure, and as researchers study this material more in depth, it is inspiring industries to develop new, stronger materials themselves.

MIT researchers describe in the journal Nature Communications some of spider silk's mysteries, which could help design synthetic resources that mimic the extraordinary properties of natural silk.

Interestingly, they have developed a systematic approach to research its structure, offering new insight into how spiders optimize their own webs.

"This is the first methodical exploration of its kind," lead author Professor Markus Buehler said in a statement. "We are looking to expand our knowledge of the function of natural webs in a systematic and repeatable manner."

Combining computational modeling and mechanical analysis, the MIT team was able to 3D-print synthetic spider webs to test its durable design. In doing so, they revealed a significant relationship between spider web structure, loading points, and failure mechanisms.

By adjusting the material distribution throughout an entire web, for example, a spider can optimize the web's strength for its anticipated prey. That is, spiders use a limited amount of material to capture insects of different sizes. What's more, it turns out that spider webs made up of threads of the same diameter are better able to bear force applied at a single point - such as the impact coming from flies hitting webs; whereas a non-uniform diameter can withstand more widespread pressure, such as from wind, rain, or gravity.

This ingenuity of nature can hopefully open new doors to creating real-world structures and composites that are both reliable and damage-resistant, as well as of a lower density.

"Spider silk is an impressive and fascinating material. But before now, the role of the web architecture had not yet been fully explored," said Harvard University professor Jennifer Lewis, who was involved in the research.

Next, the MIT team plans to examine the dynamic aspects of webs through controlled impact and vibration experiments, which could potentially lead to optimized, multifunctional structures.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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