MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) claims in the Jan issue of “Nature Materials” that it has developed a process that delivers a material that emulates the elasticity and strong properties of spider silk that can be used in military products and even Spider-Man-like fabrics, not to mention fuel-cell cells and medical devices.
Spider silk is lightweight, flexible, waterproof and one of the toughest materials in the world. It’s also extremely difficult to imitate or produce artificially. To develop the materials, MIT started with tiny clay discs at about 1-nm in diameter. The researchers developed a process to embed these clay chips in a rubbery polymer to get to the consistency of the very small crystals that are seen throughout real spider silk. The high reinforcement of of the silk comes from these crystals, or in the case of the synthetic silk, it comes from the methods used to embed the clay disks.
The end result is a “nanocomposite” of stiff clay particles dispersed throughout a stretchy matrix that is now stronger and tougher. The clay platelets are distributed randomly in the material. Consequently the nanocomposite material is reinforced in every direction and the material exhibits very little distortion even when heated to temperatures above 150 degrees Celsius.
This work is largely funded by the US Army, but interest in this silk doesn’t stop there. Manufacturers in various industries have been trying to be the first to create this artificial fiber since the 1990’s. Imagine weaving silk to create a bullet-proof vest that weighs a few ounces. Or a better fabric that absorbs your sweate and wicks it out as the ultimate in breathable clothing.