Electric Spider Webs
September 17, 2013

Electric Spider Webs

I have a friend who is absolutely terrified by spiders. Genuinely terrified. I have never understood it myself, though who can claim to understand someone’s phobias? I have always found spiders to be rather fascinating and useful little creatures. Growing up on a farm, it was drilled into my head at a very young age that spiders were not something to fear or hate. They were “good bugs,” as my grandmother would tell me, because they ate the bugs that damaged crops. Well, as it turns out, my grandmother was right. Spiders are “good bugs” (“good arachnids,” at least), as they may very well give us a new, alternative: Eco-friendly electrical conductors.

Recently, Eden Steven, a physicist at Florida State University’s MagLab, discovered a way of using spider silk as a humidity sensor, strain sensor, an actuator, and even as electrical wire. How? Rather simply, in fact. After walking about the lab with a stick to collect whatever spider webs he could find, he used a single drop of water to adhere carbon nanotubes to the silk. A carbon nanotube is a one-atom thick piece of carbon that is rolled into an incredibly small tube. This tube, thousands of times smaller than a single strand of human hair, was what Eden Steven dusted the spider silk with, using the drop of water to adhere the two of them together. They have been a source of interest for researchers across the world, who are all fascinated by their amazing strength as well as their ability to conduct electricity and heat. Meanwhile, spider silk possesses varying useful qualities itself. It is Eco-friendly, capable of withstanding humidity without complicated chemical treatments or adhesives, and is incredibly resilient.

In his Nature Communications paper, Steven wrote “Understanding the compatibility between spider silk and conducting materials is essential to advance the use of spider silk in electronic applications. Spider silk is tough, but becomes soft when exposed to water. … The nanotubes adhere uniformly and bond to the silk fiber surface to produce tough, custom-shaped, flexible and electrically conducting fibers after drying and contraction.” In short, this could be the future of wiring.

This new union of modern science and nature illustrates how the two do not necessarily have to be at odds. Rather than working to replace one with the other, we should be looking at how one can enhance the other. We gain a clearer understanding every day that our world is not a limitless resource. Cleaner, Eco-friendly technologies are needed if we are to continue as a species.

“If we understand basic science and how nature works, all we need to do is find a way to harness it. If we can find a smart way to harness it, then we can use it to create a new, cleaner technology.” – Eden Steven.

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

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