microscopic sewing machine that periodically winds the silk into a looped structure,” he said.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, Schniepp said, researchers observed that these loops actually make the material tougher, which means that the material can absorb more energy before it breaks. This is what can be applied to other materials to give them the same properties, an idea with which the team experimented, he said.
“For instance, we took a simple piece of sticky tape, and just put one small loop into it,” Schniepp said. “When we stretched this sticky tape with the loop, we found that the toughness of this tape had already gone up by about 30 percent. This already demonstrates that the principle observed in the recluse silk on the microscale still works, even when carried out with much larger objects.”
The looping principle can be applied to a range of materials to increase their capability of absorbing energy, as well as to make brittle materials more ductile, he said. These are both characteristics that can be used in space applications, as well as others, Schniepp said.
“This could be used for carbon fibers, which tend to be very brittle,” he said. “We were thinking about making nets out of looped fibers with tremendous energy-absorbing capabilities to catch incoming objects with high energy or high velocity. Examples would be projectiles on Earth, and micrometeorites or space junk in orbit.
Researchers plan to continue their work to examine the spider silk with microscopes of the highest resolutions to find the molecular-scale origins for its “fantastic” strength and toughness, Schniepp said.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.