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This New Sustainable Material Imitates the Qualities of Spider Silk

U.K. researchers are the latest to develop an artificial spider silk material, which they believe could improve synthetic fiber production in upcoming years.

Designed by a team of architects and chemists at the University of Cambridge, the stretchy fibers contain 98 percent water and may be used to create textiles, sensors and other apparel materials. The fibers are sustainable and don’t require extensive use of harmful solvents. The team’s results were published in the journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

[Read about the industry’s adoption of sustainable fibers: From Marketing Ploy to Mainstream Players, Sustainable Fabrics Come Into Their Own]

The spider silk-like fibers are spun from hydrogel, a soupy material that is almost 100 percent water. Other natural materials, including cellulose and silica, make up the remaining 2% of hydrogel. These materials are bonded together by barrel-shaped molecular “handcuffs,” which are dubbed cucurbiturils.

Chemical interactions taking place between components allow long fibers to be pulled from the hydrogel. This process forms long and extremely thin threads that are a few millionths of a meter in diameter. The water then evaporates and leaves a strong and stretchy fiber. The fibers can come together at room temperature and are bonded by atoms that share electrons.

“Although our fibres 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 co-author Dr. Darshil Shah from Cambridge’s Department of Architecture. “However, our fibers are non-toxic and far less energy-intensive to make.”

Like bungee cords, the fibers have a high damping capacity, meaning they have the ability to absorb energy—possibly exceeding the damping capacity of natural spider silk.

The researchers plan to explore the fibers’ chemistry more and potentially create other synthetic spider materials, including yarns, in the future.