David Prever, usually host of the Drive time show, kicked off the interview by asking why is spider silk so special?
Beth, who is working on a collaborative project between the engineering science and zoology departments at Oxford, answered that all spiders produce silk and have been evolving that characteristic for 400 million years – so they've had plenty of time to make a very impressive material. For its size it is incredibly strong, being weight for weight stronger than steel, but what it’s best at is its energy absorption ability.
“It’s the best material in the man-made and natural world for absorbing energy. Scaling up a spider web, so the fibre thickness is 5cm across, it could stop a Boeing 747 at speed!”
David was in awe at that fantastic fact, commenting that creating this material in the real world would have enormous commercial potential.
Ann agreed and confirmed that being able to manufacture a material similar to spider silk is the aim of the research. “This material is so remarkable because it actually is just a protein fibre spun from water at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, with no complex chemical processing going on; compared to Kevlar, a high performance fibre which is spun using very strong acids and high pressure and temperatures.”
“We're getting much closer to being able to manufacture a material like silk” added Ann.
“We understand a lot more what the spider does within its own body to produce the fibres. It starts from a liquid which has no structural strength, and produces this fibre on demand. We've been looking at how the pH changes during the process of making silk fibres, as well as how the salt concentration varies and the amount of water in the fibre, and we study each aspect of that in turn, using facilities like ISIS to understand what’s happening at a microstructural level.”
David rounded up the interview by asking Ann and Beth to come back and be on the Drive time show to tell them more, so keep your ears pricked!
Listen back for the whole story.