A professor of solid and structural mechanics at the University of Trento in Italy has come up with a way of combining natural spider silk and artificial graphene-based nanoparticles to produce a lightweight material three times stronger than steel. What’s more, this material is spun naturally by the spiders themselves, bypassing the need for problematic manufacturing processes.

Spider silk is famously strong, roughly the equivalent of the strength of steel. Nanostructures made from graphite, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes, also boast similar strengths, but are difficult to incorporate into other materials to take advantage of their specially-shaped molecules. But Dr. Nicola Pugno came up with a novel idea on how to combine the two materials: have the spiders spin it themselves.

The process simply involved feeding the test spiders special solutions that contained graphene and carbon nanotubes — these molecules are non-toxic, so they won’t poison the arachnids — and tested the resulting webs that were spun after the spiders had a chance to metabolize the solution.

Dr. Pugno found that the graphene and nanotube structures had been incorporated into the silk, increasing the material’s strength by more than three times in some cases, with up to a tenfold increase in the silks’ toughness. This means that specially-fed spiders could produce enormously strong silk thread that could be woven into fabric, using weaving methods used for producing traditional silk from silkworm threads. But the applications for carbon nanotube-enhanced materials go beyond simply making super-strong fabrics.

"You can imagine to produce extremely strong fibers, tissue, tissue with additional functionalities, for example even from a conductive, electrical point of view, with different thermal properties, so we can store energy, for example," explains Dr. Pugno. "The applications I can imagine are huge."