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Two Real Discoveries That Bring Spider Powers to Our Universe

July 3, 2012 - 10:36am

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Argonne Lab researchers used the Advanced Photon Source to look at the structure of spider's dragline silk, which allows arachnids to swing from branches and dangle from window frames, the Spiderman equivalent of swinging from high buildings and dangling from Gotham’s towers. | Creative Commons photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/dumbo/">Djumbo</a>.

Argonne Lab researchers used the Advanced Photon Source to look at the structure of spider's dragline silk, which allows arachnids to swing from branches and dangle from window frames, the Spiderman equivalent of swinging from high buildings and dangling from Gotham’s towers. | Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Djumbo.

“This life is not an easy one,” says actor Andrew Garfield, playing Peter Parker in the movie, The Amazing Spider-Man, released today.

That’s true. And that’s why researchers are studying and developing materials strong enough to withstand daily batterings and perhaps even unexpected assaults by arch-villains and über-beasts (cue the Lizard).

For instance, researchers at Argonne National Lab recently used its powerful X-ray, the Advanced Photon Source (APS), to unravel a few more mysteries about spider silk. Spider silk is amazing stuff, astonishingly flexible and still incredibly tough – pound for pound, its stronger than steel. So, Argonne Lab researchers used the APS to look at the structure of dragline silk, which allows arachnids to swing from branches and dangle from window frames, the Spiderman equivalent of swinging from high buildings and dangling from Gotham’s towers.

The strength and flexibility of dragline silk comes from two different regions: Crystalline lattices, about ten percent of the material, are what make it stronger than steel; and “amorphous” regions, the other 90 percent, give it amazing flexibility. The X-ray analysis showed, however, that the amorphous regions of the silk are even more disordered than previously thought; that even at the nanoscale, the atoms and proteins are tangled and disorganized. That insight, in turn, could lead to better ways to synthesize new sets of ultra-strong materials – perhaps even fabrics that Peter Parker could wear in the all-but-inevitable sequel.

When that sequel comes, it’s nearly certain that Spiderman won’t face off against the peacock mantis shrimp. The crustacean, however, has incredible claws, which scientists recently took a look at using the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Lab.

The critter’s fearsome claws can accelerate to speeds faster than a .22-caliber bullet and smash through mollusk shells and even aquarium glass without injury. It can also punch up to 50,000 times before being replaced, and it simply grows back if removed.

Brookhaven Lab’s analysis showed that the claw’s incredible strength and astonishing durability comes from a combination of three unique layers, which allow small cracks to form, but prevent them from spreading. That insight could lead to a whole host of lighter and stronger materials, with potential applications in everything from the medical to the military sciences.

The makers of Spiderman the movie hope to do well at the box office – and they probably will. But the scientists working on spidery applications in real life – instead of reel life – hope to do even better. They’re studying and developing materials that could improve the lives of Americans in profound ways, keeping our soldierssafer, our citizens healthier and our economy stronger.

This life is a hard one. But thanks to the tough and enduring materials being developed by researchers in the Energy Department, it will hopefully become a bit easier for everyone. 

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