For scientists and designers alike, spider thread remains one of the most popular sources of natural inspiration. This widespread appreciation is likely due to the material's remarkable characteristics—by weight it is stronger than steel, yet is produced without heat or pressure. Two recent developments mark ongoing discoveries related to spider silk.
A team of scientists from Oxford University and the College of William and Mary has recently discovered the key properties of brown recluse spider thread. The researchers note that this small venomous arachnid produces incredibly thin ribbons of silk—as opposed to the round fibers conventionally made by other spiders—and have been able to inspect the molecular structure of the thread at an unprecedented level of accuracy.
"The enigmatic ribbon structure of these threads provides us with a window into spider silk in its simplest form," said zoologist Fritz Vollrath in an Oxford University press release. "All other silks are round, rope-like aggregates made up of many nano-scale filaments. This makes it virtually impossible to study in great detail the molecular structure of the silk itself, and the fundamentals for its great toughness."
Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka has attempted to capture the enchantment of spider silk in a new exhibit called "Crystallize," on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo until January 19. His prototype chair, Spider's Thread, is a sculpture made by growing crystals on seven filaments suspended in a mineral bath. Based on Yoshioka's earlier Venus Crystal Chair research, Spider's Thread intentionally minimizes structure in order to explore further possibilities in natural crystalline growth.
These research and design examples suggest a variety of future applications, all of which are motivated by the desire to understand natural processes as well as minimize structure.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.