American Elephants

When Along Came a Spider Which Did All Sorts of Amazing Things by The Elephant's Child

(photo by mbarrison)

This is a Golden Orb spider, in the news because of a gorgeous cloak now being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The cloak took 8 years to make, with the silk from 1 million Golden Orb spiders, and the fabric is extraordinary. Some American museums are showing pieces of the fabric. The spiders are big — the legs are as wide as your hand, and the body roughly the size of a thumb.

Even more recently, a Japanese researcher has used thousands of strands of spider silk to spin a set of violin strings. The strings are said to have a “soft and profound timbre” compared to traditional gut or steel strings. We earlier wrote a post on Genghis Khan, and added a video of a Mongolian musician playing a traditional horsehead fiddle with horsetail strings and a horsetail-stringed bow.

The interest in spider silk is not new, but currently more intense, for the possibilities seem endless. Spider silk is stronger than steel, though not as strong as fibers spun from carbon nanotubes. It is waterproof. It will stretch 30-40 percent before it breaks. It is stronger than Kevlar, and would make far more protective bulletproof vests. It has antibiotic qualities. It conducts heat as effectively as metal, and its thermal conductivity increases when stretched. No wonder scientists are interested: the possibilities seem endless.

One of the primary interests, of course, is to analyze the structure and composition of spider silk in order to be able to duplicate it in a laboratory. Even a million spiders spinning is a slow process. The antibiotic and waterproof qualities along with the strength of the fibers suggest medical uses, like silk scaffolds to repair damaged musculature and broken bones, antibiotic bandages, artificial tendons.

An engineer at Iowa State University has discovered that the draglines used to anchor the golden silk orbweaver webs conduct heat better than most other materials, including aluminum, silicon and pure iron. Spider silk could become a key component of flexible electronics such as wearable computing devices and prototype folding displays. It could be used as thermal transfer material in computers.

The problem up to now with trying to produce spiderweb material was in building and maintaining spider farms that could produce silk in sufficient quantities to make it cost effective. Now a new partnership is looking for ways to create spider silk without having to use actual spiders. AMSilk is teaming up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research to figure out a way to mass produce the stuff.

Here is the fabric from the cloak on display at the Victoria & Albert:

(photo by Paul Grover/Rex Features)                                  (click to enlarge)

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