When you picture the kind of next-gen materials that excite scientists, chances are spider silk isn’t near the top of the list. As it turns out, however, the unusual mechanical qualities of spider silk — ranging from its high tensile strength and toughness to its lightweight flexibility — make it an extremely versatile material.
Here are some of the amazing things researchers are using spider silk for right now. And, no, despite what you’ve read in Spider-Man books, catching supervillains isn’t one of them!
Delivering life-saving drugs
Could spider silk one day help battle cancer? Quite possibly, if one recent Swiss-German project is to be believed. Researchers have developed microcapsules made of balled-up artificial spider silk, which could soon be used to deliver vaccines directly to patients’ immune cells to fight cancerous tumors.
“Spider silk is light and very resistant,” Professor Carole Bourquin, a specialist in anti-tumor immunotherapies who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “It does not induce any inflammation or immune reaction in itself. We found that amazingly the microparticles can withstand high temperatures of more than 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) for several hours. This suggests that they may protect vaccines in developing countries where refrigeration is frequently a problem for conventional vaccines.”
Creating better hearing aids
Researchers from New York’s Binghamton University are using spider silk to improve the quality of hearing aid microphones. The idea is that ultra-sensitive spider silk can pick up the velocity of air instead of just its pressure, due to its extreme thinness. By coating the spider silk with gold, and placing it in a magnetic field to obtain an electronic signal, the researchers were able to create a microphone able to operate at an impressive range of frequencies.
“Today’s miniature directional microphones sound bad because their response varies strongly with frequency,” Ronald Miles, a professor in Binghampton’s department of mechanical engineering, told Digital Trends. “They tend to lose low-frequency sounds and respond mostly to very high-frequency sounds. Our technology will enable the creation of directional microphones that have audiophile quality. We’ve shown that their frequency response is flat from 1 Hz to 50 kHz. This has not been possible until now.”
Helping repair damaged nerves
In addition to better hearing aids, spider silk has other potential applications for people with disabilities. In Austria, researchers are investigating the use of the ultra-strong spider silk of the golden orb-weaver spider from Tanzania to help heal severe nerve injuries. The microsurgical technique involves filling veins with spider silk to help guide nerves as they repair.
“Unfortunately, most materials have the effect of inhibiting nerve growth,” Christine Radtke, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Austria’s MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital, told Digital Trends. “Spider silk, on the other hand, is a material that nerves love. They will attach to it, and then follows the fibers directly. It’s like a rose trellis.”
Making impact-absorbing body armor
Researchers from the U.K.’s University of Cambridge have designed artificial spider silk which could be used for creating ultra-lightweight, but incredibly strong shields. In tests, their material has been shown capable of dissipating close to 70 percent of the energy if impacts.
This is a property real spiders need to have in their silk to absorb the impact of insects hitting their webs. Potential applications for this technology include everything from impact-absorbing helmets for cyclists, football players, and skateboarders to potential armored vests for use by police or soldiers.
Creating fake skin
In the comics, Spider-Man has occasionally dealt with broken or injured arms by creating a sling for himself out of spider web. Researchers from Sweden and India recently took this idea one step further by using spider silk to develop wound dressings and even artificial skin to help heal wounds.
The dressings could be used to treat chronic wounds like diabetic foot ulcers, while the artificial skin could be used for skin grafts in the case of critical third-degree burns. It could also be employed as a skin substitute to screen certain drug molecules for the cosmeceutical industry. Noted scientist Peter Parker would be proud!
Producing even stronger spider silk
You know what material is even more versatile than spider silk? That’s right: graphene, the 2D wonder material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms laid out in a hexagonal arrangement. While spider silk is impressively strong, graphene is in another league entirely — being touted as the strongest material known to exist, 200x the strength of steel.
In their efforts to make new supercharged version of regular spider silk, researchers at the University of Trento, Italy fed spiders a diet partially comprised of graphene — and then watched what happened. The nanomaterial-laced silk wound up being 3x the strength and 10x the toughness of the silk spiders produce in the wild.
No applications have been demonstrated yet, but it’s easy to imagine how this could be deployed in conjunction with some of the other use-cases on this list.
Making the clothing material of the future
With spider silk’s combination of stretch, stretchiness and sustainability, there’s no wonder it’s in demand from clothing designers. While it’s still somewhat uncommon, spider silk has already attracted the attention of some big names in the industry.
Previously, we’ve written about a fully biodegradable spider silk shoe developed by Adidas, as well as a North Face prototype “Moon Parka” jacket that’s made out of much the same material. How long before spider silk starts showing up elsewhere on the high street?
Helping astronauts move in microgravity
This one’s really more of an honorary mention, because it doesn’t include real spider silk — but, rather, is inspired by the way that spiders spin silk to move around. Created by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the so-called Orbit Weaver device is a Spider-Man-style web shooter designed to let astronauts more easily pull themselves from location to location in zero or microgravity conditions.
“The device shoots a string out with a magnetic tip,” Xin Liu, the arts curator at the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, told Digital Trends. “Once the tip is in contact with a steel panel, it secures the attachment due to magnetic forces. Then the device will rewind, like a fishing spoil but reversed, and drag the wearer. Because you are technically weightless, it doesn’t need much torque to pull a person around with such a small device.”