Spider silk connects photonic disks to collect light. Via PhysOrg
Spider silk is pretty amazing stuff. Pound for pound, it’s as strong as steel and more durable than Kevlar. It can be stretched to incredible lengths, but it’s no more cumbersome than cotton or nylon. Because it’s so awesome, scientists have long been searching for good ways to synthesize the stuff (it’s not exactly easy to milk spiders in any meaningful quantity), and they’ve made some good progress. Thanks to the latest work from biomedical engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts University in Boston and Nolwenn Huby from the CNRS Institut de Physiques de Rennes in France, they’ll have a little extra motivation to get it done soon.
Omenetto and Huby are both presenting their work on Monday at a conference in Rochester, New York. It’s hard to tell who’s more impressive. Omenetto’s team is developing silk-based materials that look and act like plastic, but because of their unique chemical makeup, are completely and safely biodegradable. That means they could build special microchips that could be implanted inside of the body to serve a particular purpose and simply dissolve when the job’s done. A broken bone, for instance. Doctors might not be completely sure when the bone will be healed could theoretically implant one of their spider silk microchips onto the bone to monitor the progress, and it would simply disappear when everything is back to normal.
Huby is also thinking about the digital frontier. To put it simply, she wants to use spider silk for fiber optics. Aside from all of the aforementioned benefits of spider silks — it’s crazy strong, tremendously durable, light and nimber — it can also transport light just as well as the more traditional glass nanotubes. Spider silk, however, is ready to use once it’s produced, unlike the glass that’s needs to be heated up and manipulated. As such, Huby wants to integrate spider silk into microchips to transport information. Spider silk can even direct light to specific parts of the chip, a quality that also makes it a great candidate for spectroscopy. The stuff is thinner than a human hair, so just imagine how non-invasive surgery could get if spider silk was used to provide a light source during surgery.
This is just the beginning. As Omenetto and Huby gather steam, their ambitions for the magical fibers have no limits. Omenetto says he actually wants to build gadgets with his spider silk microchips. He’s even experimenting with ways to integrate the chips into living tissue. Surely, somewhere along the way, somebody’s going to create a superhero, right?