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MIT Is Designing Materials with Super Strength Thanks to… Spiders?

3D-printer-webNo, this isn’t the plot to a new Spider Man reboot. And it isn’t related to DARPA’s spider suit project inspired by geckos, either. But the researchers at MIT have spiders on the brain and it’s no surprise why.

Spider silk—despite being a shocking experience to walk through—has long been noted for its graceful structure, as well as its advanced material properties. Ounce for ounce, it’s stronger than steel! And now, MIT’s scientists have developed a systematic approach to researching the structure of spider silk, possibly leading to synthetic spider webs that could be used as building materials.

By coupling multiscale modeling with microscale 3D-printing techniques, the team was able to directly fabricate and test synthetic web structures by design. The lessons learned through this approach may help harness spider silk’s strength for other uses, and ultimately inspire engineers to digitally design new structures and composites that are reliable and damage-resistant. We could be looking at the future of architecture using spider silk to strengthen our buildings.

“This is the first methodical exploration of its kind,” says Professor Markus Buehler, head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), and the lead author of the paper. He tells Science Daily, “We are looking to expand our knowledge of the function of natural webs in a systematic and repeatable manner.”

The study by Dr. Buehler and his team unearthed some significant data about spider web structure. By adjusting the material distribution throughout an entire web, a spider is able to optimize the web’s strength for its anticipated prey. According to Buehler, spider webs employ a limited amount of material to capture prey of different sizes. He and his colleagues hope to use this work to design real-world, damage-resistant materials with extremely low density.

“Spider silk is an impressive and fascinating material,” says Harvard University professor and coauthor on the study, Jennifer Lewis. “But before now, the role of the web architecture had not yet been fully explored.” So the team adopted an experimental setup and used metal structures to 3D-print synthetic webs, and directly integrate their data into real-world models.

The 3D-printed models, Lewis says, open the door to studying the effects of web architecture on strength and damage tolerance — a feat that would have been impossible to achieve using only natural spider webs. Together with computational modeling and 3D-printing, the team made it possible to test and optimize spider web designs efficiently and under the optimal conditions. Coauthor and CEE research scientist Zhao Qin tells Science Daily that “We are on the way to quantifying the mechanism that makes the spider’s web so strong.”

So what’s next for the spider web researchers? Lewis says that the team now plans to examine the dynamic aspects of webs through controlled impact and vibration experiments, testing their synthetic web strength in real time. If this material takes off and gets implemented into architectural designs, buildings will look pretty different in the future. Let’s just hope we don’t attract any real spiders to come live in our new buildings!

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