What happens if you spray unsuspecting spiders with graphene, the world's strongest artificial material? They spin ultra-strong silk webs, an Italian scientist has discovered.
Nicola Pugno from the University of Trento wanted to combine natural and man-made strength to create a material with record-breaking properties, and his wish was granted.
He applied “aqueous dispersions” of graphene, which is made of sheets of carbon just one atom thick, and noted how they ended up combining with the silk produced by the spiders – one of nature's most resilient substances.
The results, published in the Cornell University Library, show how the combination produced fibres that were 3.5 times tougher than the strongest pure silk, which comes from the giant riverine orb spider. Speculating on its uses, Pugno told the New Scientist it could one day be used to catch planes falling from the sky. Other than that, he believes the discovery "could be extended to other animals and plants", leading to a "new class of bionic materials".
Pugno isn't quite sure how the silk and graphene managed to mix together so perfectly, but he believes it might be because the spiders mop up the substances in their surroundings, incorporating them into the silk-weaving process.
The quality of the graphene-silk varies according to the spider used, however – some were found to be gifted in their ability to spin the strongest silk, while others failed to live up to expectations.
But if you find a top-rate spider, the uses could be endless. In fact, Pugno thinks it might one day be possible to create silk strong enough to catch a falling aeroplane.