New Discovery in Spider Silk May Help Develop Robotic Muscle

(CN) – Your friendly neighborhood spider is weaving what may be a viable component for the robotics industry, as a new report released Friday details how a strand of silk has presented researchers with a phenomenal twist on spiders and physics.

With its strength relative to its light weight, spider silk provides a map to a new polymer that could one day be used in robotics and other applications.

Researchers discovered that spider silk strongly responds to changes in humidity, according to the study published in the journal Science Advances.

When humidity goes up, the fibers of a spider’s web suddenly become taught with supercontraction. The silk also twists at the same time, giving a strong torsional force.

Study authors believe the same principles can be applied to actuators, which converts electric, air or liquid energy into a form of motion – making the supercontraction application useful in manufacturing or industrial settings. They also believe this ultra-fine but durable material could one day be used as an artificial muscle.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Markus Buehler said, “This could be very interesting for the robotics community. It’s very precise in how you can control these motions by controlling the humidity.”

Like any good discovery story, researchers said they stumbled on the supercontraction reaction by accident. When they tried to test their new discovery with other materials, including human hair, only the spider silk was able to produce the twisting motion.

A certain protein building block found in spider silk explains how the supercontraction reaction works. Also worth noting is the rotation from the change in humidity only goes in one direction. The researchers believe the reaction could be a defense mechanism to keep a spider’s web durable in the morning dew.

Co-author Anna Tarakanova, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, said spider silk has a unique behavior when humidity is introduced and the torque response could be exploited to design silk-based materials that can be finetuned down to the nanoscale.

“Potential applications are diverse, from humidity-driven soft robots and sensors to smart textiles and green energy generators,” said Tarakanova.

Scientists around the world are already working to create a synthetic version of spider webs and researchers say this newest discovery could lead to sensors meant to track humidity.

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