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14th September 2017, Trento

Enhanced silk as strong as carbon fibre

Although only produced so far on a small proof-of-concept scale, testing revealed the beefed-up silk to be one of the strongest materials on earth.  Scientists led by Nicola Pugno at Italy's University of Trento have succeeded in combining spider silk with grapheme and carbon nanotubes, producing a composite material five times stronger. Silk incorporating graphene and carbon nanotubes is produced by spider spinning, after feeding spiders with water containing the nanotubes, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

“Spiders placed in an environment with water solutions containing nanotubes or graphene may produce dragline silk with enhanced mechanical properties, realising the highest fibre toughness to date, combined with a strength comparable to that of the strongest carbon fibres or of limpet teeth,” states the study.

Reinforced silk fibres

“Our proof-of-concept experiment paves the way to exploiting the naturally efficient spider spinning process to produce reinforced silk fibres, thus further improving one of the most promising silk materials, as compared to synthetic recombinant silks.”

“This procedure of natural integration of reinforcements in biological structural materials could also be applied to other animals and plants, leading to a new class of bionicomposites for innovative applications.”

Strong material

"We already know that there are biominerals present in in the protein matrices and hard tissues of insects, which gives them high strength and hardness in their jaws, mandibles and teeth, for example," said Pugno. "So our study looked at whether spider silk's properties could be 'enhanced' by artificially incorporating various different nanomaterials into the silk's biological protein structures."

Although only produced so far on a small proof-of-concept scale, testing revealed the beefed-up silk to be one of the strongest materials on earth – equal to pure carbon fibres, or, in the natural world, to the "teeth" that enable limpets to adhere to rocks.

"It is among the best spun polymer fibres in terms of tensile strength, ultimate strain, and especially toughness, even when compared to synthetic fibres such as Kevlar," said Pugno. Further testing and refinement is still required, but the work of Pugno and her colleagues raises the possibility of millions of spiders housed in batteries, fed nano-tube cordial, and used to provide tonnes of enhanced silk.

The research was published in the journal 2D Materials.

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