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The science of Spiderman

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Source: Google creative commons

Imagine being able to crawl vertically up walls. Imagine being able to detect objects well before they even come close to you. Imagine (provided you have the fitness to do so) running leaps and bounds across a Manhattan skyline. When I mention all these things together, hopefully what comes to mind is our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. Dressed in that famous red and blue skin tight suit, Spiderman and his abilities were pretty much restricted to comic books and superhero movies. But thanks to some clever science, and a little creativty, a real life Spiderman is not so unbelievable anymore.

Why do I think it’s actually plausible for a real life Spiderman? Well, it’s all to do with a few inventions and innovations that really have many applications outside constructing a real life Spiderman suit.

The Suit

Firstly to create a real life Spiderman suit, the suit should first and foremost give the wearer the ability to stick to walls – a pretty fundamental Spiderman ability.Rather than model the suit on you know, spiders, a more useful model from the animal kingdom is to model the adhesive properties on…geckos.

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Source: Google creative commons

But why geckos? These lizards are able to scale walls, ceilings and even suspend themselves from glass surfaces. But until pretty recently, how geckos did this was still a mystery. We now know that the underside of a geckos foot contain millions of tiny microscopic hairs called setae, which are arranged in a ridge like pattern. Each setae ends in an even smaller tip called a spatulae (up to 1000 spatulae per setae), which is only 200 billionths of a metre wide – well below the wavelength of visible light. What these tiny hairs do is increase the attractive Van der Waals forces between the hair and the surface, making it possible for the gecko to support its own weights against the force of gravity.

In 2007, an Italian physicist and engineer Nicola Pugno, from the Turnin Polytechnic calculated that a person wearing gloves and boots produced out of synthetic carbon nanotubes mimicking geckos feet would be able to safely adhere to a wall or a ceiling. All we would need to do then is slap some blue and red paint onto the suit, fashion a mask and vuala, we have a suit fit for a modern day Spiderman.

The Sense

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Source: Google creative commons

But then there’s that problem of running into schmucks and a suit that could relay some spider senses would be great in a pinch. Introducing the aptly named SpiderSense suit. A couple of really ingenious inventors out of the University of Illinois have created a real life suit that is able to perceive the environment through ultrasonic waves detected via sensors. Then tiny mechanical arms apply pressure to the wearer’s body when an object comes into proximity. During a public demonstration of the suit, the wearer was blindfolded and asked volunteers to advance on him like villains from the series would. The wearer was able to read their movements with the suit and throw toy shurikens at them with 95% accuracy, according to the creator.

But this technology, even though putting it to use in a Spiderman suit is pretty cool, there are far more beneficial applications. For example, this kind of technology would be life changing to a blind person, who would be able to perceive through sensations on the skin if there were people, cars, bikes, you name it, in the vicinity.

The Sling

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Source: Google creative commons

Lastly, any self respecting Spiderman would most definitely need to be able to web sling, and for that we would need to DIY spider webs. Cue in some pretty marvelous silk worms that have had some minor genetic tweaking to produce a silk that is on par with the toughness of spider silk – which is amazingly stronger than steel!! But why can’t we just use spider silk? That’s a good question and the answer to that is that it’s quite unconventional to farm spiders for their silk because they don’t produce enough of it. Besides, rather than getting silk, spiders have that really annoying habit of eating each other, which is super unproductive. What the scientists were able to demonstrate is that the composite silk, which contains both spider silk and silkworm silk, has vastly improved mechanical properties when compared to unaltered silkworm silk, which generally is quite fragile. But put some of this composite silk into a dispenser, and web slinging is a no brainer. Just make sure you don’t let go over a 50m drop please.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m definitely putting my spider suit on order. Look out for me in the Melbourne CBD in the coming years. Hopefully.

Here’s a link to Dr. Pungo’s paper where he published his science, just click here

Here’s a link to the scientific paper discussing the GM silkworms, just click here

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