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Life in the Undergrowth: Spider Silk

Spider Silk must be one of the most wonderful materials created by animals. There must be few real human devised materials as amazing, minutely thin yet strong and flexible. Spiders use silk for a wide variety of uses: sticky webs, trapdoors to hide behind, trip wires, fishing lines, protection for eggs...As well as trying to recreate it, scientists have also been experimenting with adding to its uses, not least to help make the next generation of computers.

Ice Coated Spider Silk

Fiber optics - thin fibres of glass are most visible these days in things like Christmas trees just looking pretty. However they are also the future of faster computers. Information in current computers travels at the slow speed of electricity. Light travels far faster than current so if it can be used to carry information then data can travel similarly faster. That is where fibre optics come in - they act as the wires down which light is transmitted. They are already used to send data between computers, but current research aims to also use them actually within the computer circuits themselves.

This requires very thin, hollow tubes of glass to be made - tens of thousands of times thinner than human hairs. How do you make tubes that thin? One solution experimented with by scientists at the University of California is to use spider silk. Humans may not be able to easily create fibres that thin, but spiders can. The solution is to coat spider silk in glass then bake the silk away.

The result, thanks to the spiders, are nanoscale silica tubes that are cheap and simple to create ... and possibly a new generation of computers that are even more powerful than ever.