Editorial Feature

Spider Silk Coated with Carbon Nanotubes

Image Credits: mycteria/shutterstock.com

Physicists around the world are currently very interested in studying and investigating the physical properties of carbon nanotubes, such as their astounding strength and both their thermal and electrical conductivity.  Researchers at the MagLab facility at Florida State University have recently been conducting experiments using carbon nanotubes and spider silk, which has led to the discovery of some surprising results.

Exceptional Strength and Conductivity

A carbon nanotube is made by rolling a sheet of carbon atoms to form a miniscule tube.  If the carbon atoms are aligned correctly before rolling, a carbon nanotube can be created that is as strong as steel, yet almost 10,000 times smaller than a single strand of human hair.

Rewarding and Environment-Friendly OutcomesResearch is continuing across the scientific community to explore the properties of carbon nanotubes, such as their exceptional strength and ability to conduct electricity and heat. Since their discovery, carbon nanotubes have been used to create novel products and materials. Carbon nanotubes can be used to improve the conductive, mechanical and flame-resistant properties of both plastics and composites.

Eden Steven, a physicist working at the MagLab facility at Florida State University, realised that the use of simple methods can provide greatly rewarding and environment-friendly outcomes when performing experiments with carbon nanotubes and spider silk, itself a strong biodegradable polymer.

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.

Eden Steven, Physicist, MagLab, Florida State University

Steven harvested and collected the spider silk, separated it into strands and then coated it with carbon nanotubes. In order to make the nanotubes to stick to the silk, he softened the silk with water allowing the nanotubes to adhere uniformly to the silk surface.

Image Credits: Tyler Boyes/shutterstock.com

The group at MagLab discovered that the unique strength and toughness exhibited by spider silk, combined with the nanotubes, can lead to electrical and heat conducting devices.

Extraordinary Practical Applications

It turns out that this high-grade, remarkable material has many functions.

Eden Steven, Physicist, MagLab, Florida State University

According to Steven, this extraordinary material possesses a variety of innovative and novel functions. It can be used as:

  • electrical wire
  • a humidity sensor
  • a strain sensor
  • an actuator, which is a device which can be used as an artificial muscle for lifting weights.

Looking Forward

Eden Steven and his team presented their findings in a paper titled "Carbon nanotubes on a spider silk scaffold"; the details of which can be found online in the journal Nature Communications.

The team at MagLab hope that further research will lead to an improved understanding of the compatibility between spider silk and conducting materials, resulting in the discovery of many more useful applications in electrical conductivity as well as in other areas.

Sources and Further Reading

Alexander Chilton

Written by

Alexander Chilton

Alexander has a BSc in Physics from the University of Sheffield. After graduating, he spent two years working in Sheffield for a large UK-based law firm, before relocating back to the North West and joining the editorial team at AZoNetwork. Alexander is particularly interested in the history and philosophy of science, as well as science communication. Outside of work, Alexander can often be found at gigs, record shopping or watching Crewe Alexandra trying to avoid relegation to League Two.

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