Strongest fabrics are man-made, backed by nanotechnology

  • Scientists are studying the silk used in spider webs to help develop stronger fabrics.

      Scientists are studying the silk used in spider webs to help develop stronger fabrics. John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2014

Posted2/19/2018 11:37 AM

"What is the strongest fabric, and how is it made?" asked a camper from the Wauconda Area Library STEM camp.

Scientists, spiders and goats are key players in the search for the strongest fabrics.


While the strongest fabrics are man-made and use nanotechnology processes to produce textiles that can stand up to extreme forces and conditions, scientists are researching nature-made materials spun by spiders to gain a better understanding of the possible uses of strong, flexible and lightweight materials.

Beginning in the 1980s, science labs wanted to create a better mousetrap, that is, they wanted to use fabrics made from materials found in nature, such as cotton and silk, that do more than look great as jeans or T-shirts.

Scientists produced gel substances containing nanoparticles to coat cotton and silk fabrics, making them water, stain, odor and UV resistant, and fabrics with antibacterial properties.

Even more is possible, such as embedding fabrics with energy sources to provide power for electronics, record body function data, store energy or even detect toxic substances.

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The next generation of nano fabrics alters the fiber at the molecular level. With this added technology, fabrics can be almost stronger than steel.

The winner of the 1992 America's Cup international yacht sailing competition, America³, showcased a nano-enhanced fabric that came to be called Cuben, a reference to the yacht's name.

Cuben was installed as the yacht's jib and mainsail, maximizing wind energy and pushing the boat to ultra high speeds without tearing. Needing light material that can stand up to weather, the outdoor industry manufactures tents and backpacks with this lab-produced fabric.

A second line of nanofabrics is available for industries as varied as air transportation, the security field for bulletproof/stab-proof fabrics and armored vehicles, construction, shipping and mining.

Scientists are developing a "tsunami-catcher," approximately one-inch wide nano-enhanced fabric that could be strong enough to hold back devastating tsunami waves.


Now, the spiders and goats.

Natural fabrics like silk are incredibly strong and completely environmentally safe. Silk is generally thought of as a product of silk moths, but there are about 41,000 spiders that produce silk.

Like silk moths, the spiders secrete silk on demand for webs. The largest is Darwin's bark spider from Madagascar, which weaves a web the size of a bedroom to be tossed across streams and snag prey.

Many universities, such as the University of Akron and Utah State, study the biomechanics of these natural fibers. Extremely lightweight, elastic and strong, this silk won't be seen on next year's fashion runways. These spiders are predators that attack their own kind, so mass production could result in losses incurred by the last spider standing.

Instead, researchers borrowed genes from silk spiders and added them to goats, hoping the goat milk will adopt spider silk properties.

Not a bad idea, because goats produce as much milk as cows and are easy to handle. It's too soon to see goat milk as an ingredient used in the fabric weaving, but the spider silk goat milk is now used to create needed medicines.

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