Scientists have recently managed to create a material stronger than spider silk. Why, the scientific community just considers spider silk as the strongest bio-based material known to man.
What exactly does this mean for the rest of the scientific community? How will this material change fields such as medicine and engineering? And of course, for geeks out there: can this pave way for superhero suits?
Our team from What’s A Geek! got an exclusive from the very team that made the startling discovery. Did a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist hire them after this discovery? Do we have a means to afford our own superhero uniforms?
A Stronger Strongest Material
Scientists and other professionals consider spider silk as the strongest bio-based material known to man – at least for the past 15 years. Researchers from various universities led by Nitesh Mittal and Daniel Söderberg managed to create the stronger strongest bio-based material.
Their new material is composed of cellulose nanofibers (CNFs), which are the same building blocks most plant life possess. Scientists have been hard at work trying to interpret and transfer the unique “properties” of CNFs on artificial substances. As such, this new stronger strongest material may in fact be our key to more sustainable and efficient infrastructure – among others.
Thanks to a new production method, the Swedish scientists managed to create a lightweight and macroscopic bio-based material that is not just stronger than steel and spider silk, but also eco-friendly. In fact, the method essentially paved way for scientists to precisely control how nanomaterials can be assembled.
Solving the Problem: Outperforming Natural Materials
Scientists have been hard at work in recent years to mimic the way natural materials work on a nano level, as understanding this may pave way to “translating” their natural architecture to larger-scale applications.
“Why are trees so strong and remain intact under extreme weather conditions?” Mittal told Rhenn of What’s A Geek! “How did nature optimize the architecture of its creations?”
For instance, it’s been observed that cell walls of wood cells – which are made of CNFs – possess remarkable stiffness and strength because of their organization on both a micro and macro scale. Understanding how these work has become the inspiration of scientists to try creating substances and materials that are just as strong.
However, scientists have yet to mimic how plants “arrange” CNFs perfectly on a macro level. After all, this means scientists who’ve only studied life’s processes for a couple thousand years will have to mimic nature, which has spent millions to refine and perfect the process through evolution. Mittal, Söderberg, and their team managed to pass this hurdle through hydrodynamic focussing.
Throughout the course of the experiment, scientists managed to suspend nanofibers in water and have them pass through an extremely small channel. Deionized water and water low pH water helped push the stream of nanofibers and align them into various macroscopic threads.
The process managed to align the nanofibers into the arrangements scientists have intended without any need of glue or adhesive. Instead, the nanofibers managed to hold themselves together. This is courtesy of supramolecular forces in between them, such as Van der Waals and electrostatic forces.
The Magic of The New Material
Aside from the fact that the team did manage to mimic one of the many mystifying processes found in nature, the material produced is just as much as a stunner. In fact, measurements revealed the material has a tensile stiffness of as much as 86 gigapascals (GPa) and tensile strength of 1.57 GPa. Söderberg said this makes it eight (8) times stiffer and much stronger than spider silk fibers. In fact, he revealed this makes the material stronger than any material known to man. These include metals like steel, and most synthetic materials such as glass fibers.
As if that’s not enough, the “weakest” fiber the team has produced still trumps other CNF fibers in terms of strength. To recall, professioanls consider dragline spider silk as the “gold” standard for lightweight biopolymers, Meanwhile, scientists consider steel as the strongest industrial material in existence.
Moreover, improvements on both the material and the process can be translated on a macro level. Scientists can eventually use the process to control the assembly of nano-sized fibers and carbon tubes.
The bio-based material itself may have a number of practical uses. Its compatibility with the human body makes it a candidate for medical applications. Mittal added its various properties also make it apt for making things like furniture and planes.
What About Superhero Suits?
Naturally, curious minds (geeks?) will probably inquire about the application of this new bio-based material for the betterment of geekdom. After all, wouldn’t a lightweight ultrastrong material be practical for a superhero suit?
Some might be curious if superheroes like Spider-Man can benefit from such a material. Geeks may know Peter Parker to have made his suit himself. However, can we use this material to make Peter a spider-suit?
Unfortunately, Mittal said this might not be a good idea – yet. He explained superheroes might find it impractical to use the suit given the stiffness of the material.
Mittal didn’t dismiss the idea completely, however. He said superhero tailors have to overcome two major challenges to make the endeavor successful. They should first find a way to reduce the humidity sensitivity of the material, especially if they want the suit to be usable under any weather. Lastly, they should find some way to make the material more elastic.
“These nanostructured monofilaments can be used in combination with other materials to potentially create a real-life superhero suit,” he said.
The Takeaway: A Brighter Future For Materials
Mittal told What’s A Geek! we can’t apply the material directly on an industrial scale. At least, application seems impractical in its current form. Mittal and the team still have to improve the material in various aspects, including the aforementioned humidity sensitivity. Moreover, he said another big development for the project would using the hydrodynamic forces to create “knots” to improve the material further.
“If we can create knots at such small levels, it might be possible to go further high in terms of strength,” he said. “[These] bio-based materials [may] be able to compete with carbon or aramid fibers someday.”
“We are working together with industry to increase the production and potentially commercialize the material,” he said. “Plastic [can potentially] be replaced with more environmentally-friendly and biodegradable materials.”
Nittel’s team is comprised of various scientists, chemists, and physicists from various universities. Participating institutions included the KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), and Stanford University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (USA).
Readers can find the study in ACS Nano. The American Chemical Society (ACS) is a U.S. Congress-chartered nonprofit that publicizes and publishes peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Reference: Nitesh Mittal et al. Multiscale Control of Nanocellulose Assembly: Transferring Remarkable Nanoscale Fibril Mechanics to Macroscale Fibers. ACS Nano, published online May 9, 2018; doi: 10.1021/acsnano.8b01084