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Green Method Developed for Making Artificial Spider Silk

The fibers are sustainable, non-toxic, and can be made at room temperature

by University of Cambridge
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Video credit: University of Cambridge

A team of architects and chemists from the University of Cambridge has designed super-stretchy and strong fibers which are almost entirely composed of water, and could be used to make textiles, sensors, and other materials. The fibers, which resemble miniature bungee cords as they can absorb large amounts of energy, are sustainable, non-toxic, and can be made at room temperature.

This new method not only improves upon earlier methods of making synthetic spider silk, since it does not require high energy procedures or extensive use of harmful solvents, but it could substantially improve methods of making synthetic fibers of all kinds, since other types of synthetic fibers also rely on high-energy, toxic methods. The results are reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Spider silk is one of nature's strongest materials, and scientists have been attempting to mimic its properties for a range of applications, with varying degrees of success. "We have yet to fully recreate the elegance with which spiders spin silk," said co-author Dr Darshil Shah from Cambridge's Department of Architecture.

The fibers designed by the Cambridge team are "spun" from a soupy material called a hydrogel, which is 98 percent water. The remaining two percent of the hydrogel is made of silica and cellulose, both naturally available materials, held together in a network by barrel-shaped molecular "handcuffs" known as cucurbiturils. The chemical interactions between the different components enable long fibers to be pulled from the gel.

The fibers are pulled from the hydrogel, forming long, extremely thin threads—a few millionths of a meter in diameter. After roughly 30 seconds, the water evaporates, leaving a fiber which is both strong and stretchy.

"Although our fibers are not as strong as the strongest spider silks, they can support stresses in the range of 100 to 150 megapascals, which is similar to other synthetic and natural silks," said Shah. "However, our fibers are non-toxic and far less energy-intensive to make."

The fibers are capable of self-assembly at room temperature, and are held together by supramolecular host-guest chemistry, which relies on forces other than covalent bonds, where atoms share electrons.

"When you look at these fibers, you can see a range of different forces holding them together at different scales," said Yuchao Wu, a PhD student in Cambridge's Department of Chemistry, and the paper's lead author. "It's like a hierarchy that results in a complex combination of properties."

The strength of the fibers exceeds that of other synthetic fibers, such as cellulose-based viscose and artificial silks, as well as natural fibers such as human or animal hair.

In addition to its strength, the fibers also show very high damping capacity, meaning that they can absorb large amounts of energy, similar to a bungee cord. There are very few synthetic fibers which have this capacity, but high damping is one of the special characteristics of spider silk. The researchers found that the damping capacity in some cases even exceeded that of natural silks.

"We think that this method of making fibers could be a sustainable alternative to current manufacturing methods," said Shah. The researchers plan to explore the chemistry of the fibers further, including making yarns and braided fibers.