Boosting Spiders

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the most common fears, affecting slightly less than 50% of women and 15% men. But regardless of how scary they can be, spiders are fascinating creatures, and you can’t deny their skill. They can spin the second toughest natural material in this planet: spider silk.

Spider silk can be found in spider webs, which are made by quite the process. It is called ballooning, a hilariously weird name that describes the method by which spiders release silk strings into the air so the wind carries them away, until they attach to a surface. Step by step, fibres criss-cross until a web is formed.

You may have already met this creation when cleaning your old, dusty attic or from running face first into them in the woods, but what many people don’t know is that its strength is, in proportion, comparable to that of steel. However, it may not seem as strong because it is much thinner and less dense.

But let’s not get too caught up in spiders and their ways of life. Although their silk can boast of incredible characteristics, we as humans always insist on pushing harder and trying to improve what we see. In this case, this lead to scientists to add a man-made touch into the mix to toughen up silk.

Two groups of spiders, both from the species Pholcidae, were kept in different environments. One group was sprayed with water and graphene molecules dissolved in it whereas the others got water with carbon nanotubes. Then, in a mechanism still unknown to the researchers, the spiders were able to use the carbon compounds in the solutions to make stronger silk. This could’ve happened because they drank the water and the graphene and carbon nanotubes ended up in the silk-producing areas of their bodies or more simply, because the silk ended up covered in the solution and the compounds coated it.

spider web

Let’s hope the toughened up spiders don’t rebel against us

That is what the team of researchers will be investigating further, but for now, they are basking in the glory of being able to produce the strongest fibre ever: an artificial silk between 3.5 and 6 times stronger than the natural version. In perspective, this means the silk produced by these buffed up spiders is just as strong as Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests.

Who knows where this coalition between spiders and humans could go next. One idea is to repeat the process with other animals, like silkworms, which also produce their own type of silk. Before though, they need to know how we could actually use this type of silk, whether in sutures and clothes or in the craziest idea yet: creating huge silk nets strong enough to catch and hold falling airplanes.

Blender Potion for Graphene

Graphene is quickly rising to become one of the most useful substances on Earth. It is an extremely hard substance, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and only 1 atom layer thick. Even better, it is as abundant as graphite, the black substance found in pencil leads, as graphene stuck together in many layers is in fact graphite.

But up until now, there had been a problem with this amazing material: its production. Obtaining some graphene is relatively easy: you get a piece a graphite from any pencil, and using some tape, stick and unstick it to the surface of the graphite continuously. This way, you will end up with a very small of graphene. This surprising method was discovered by two students at the University of Manchester: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry precisely for this technique.


This is graphene, a layer of atoms made of hexagonal carbon rings

The problem is that although this tape method works perfectly fine to produce some graphene, it’s not an efficient way to manufacture amounts large enough to meet the demand for this product. So scientists have been working non-stop to find a solution to their problem, and indeed they have found a very curious one.

Just as the original technique, its fairly straightforward. You just need some graphite, some water, soap and a blender. Now just add it all into the blender and turn it on. After a few seconds of work, you have produced a decent amount of graphene. The blades manage to cut between the layers of graphene in graphite and produce individual graphene.
The bright side of this process is that it produces 5 grams of graphene an hour, whilst previous methods produced only half a gram an hour. On the downside, however, is the fact that its not really as easy as this, and to get the best results you need to use more sophisticated substances and to get a decent amount the experiment would have to be scaled up.

It is still an enormous improvement compared to the previous methods that will for sure make this outstanding material more approachable, and all the technological revolutions it will bring closer to our reach.