MessageToEagle.com - Spider silks possess nature’s most exceptional mechanical properties, with
unrivalled extensibility and high tensile strength. Unfortunately, our understanding of silks is limited.
Now a research team of the Stanford University measured all of the elastic properties of an intact
spider's web, drawing a remarkable picture of the behavior of one of nature’s most intriguing structures.
Using a long-known-but-underutilized spectroscopy technique, known as Brillouin
spectroscopy, the team led by Kristie Koski, a researcher in the Yi Cui Group
in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University, could lead to new “bio-inspired”
materials that improve upon nature.
Click on image to enlarge
Stanford post-doctoral scholar Kristie Koski developed a clever way to measure the elastic
response of intact spider webs using a century-old spectroscopy technique that does not require physical
contact with the silk. At left is an intact web and, on the right, a detail demonstrating the pinpoint accuracy of Koski's system. The portion
of the web examined is on the right-center of the photo on the left. (Photo and illustration courtesy of Kristie Koski, Stanford University.)
At the same time, the researchers are able to shed some light on the mysteries of spider silk.
As fibers go, there’s never been anything quite like spider silk. Stretch it. Bend it. Soak it. Dry it out.
Spider silk holds up. It is five times stronger than steel and can expand nearly a third greater than its original
length and snap right back like new. Ounce-for-ounce spider silk is even stronger than Kevlar, the man-made fiber
used in bulletproof vests.
It would be understandable to think that science knows all there is to know about the remarkable physics of spider
silk, but the truth is far from that.
The Brillouin spectroscopy is a technique that shines laser light on the spider silks. The light produces sound waves in the silks, which,
in turn, reflect some light back to the spectrometer. The researchers call the reflection “scattering.”
The complete elastic response of spider silk is described by five elastic constants that define how the web reacts to
any possible combination of forces—pulling, twisting or shearing in any direction. All five have never been measured in a
pristine spider web.
“My goal is to study the nanostructure of silk to understand not just how spider silk behaves as it does, but
also why it behaves in such remarkable ways in hopes of someday creating better man-made fibers,” said Koski.
“It is a bit like plucking the string of a violin, only we never have to physically touch the string to play it,” said Koski.
The spectrometer measures small variations in the scattered light to ascertain the underlying tension of the silk being
measured. The power of Brillouin scattering rests in the gentle way it gathers data enabling in situ measurements
on spider webs, including mechanical properties at precise spots on the web such as silk intersections and glue spots.
The result is that Koski and collaborators are the first to quantify the complete linear elastic response of spider webs,
testing for subtle variations in tension among discrete fibers, junctions, and glue spots for every type of
deformation possible. It is a remarkable picture of the behavior of one of nature’s most intriguing structures.
“The possibility of adjusting mechanical properties by simply adjusting water content is interesting from a
bio-inspired mechanical structure perspective and could lead in interesting research directions as we try to
invent new fibers,” said Koski.
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