CLOSE
Original image
istock

Researchers Created Spiders That Spin Super-Silk

Original image
istock

Spider silk is nature’s wonder material. It's stronger than steel, but just one-sixth the density. It's more elastic than a rubber band, sometimes stretching up to five times its original length without breaking. “A thread with a diameter of 2 centimeters could pull a whole airplane,” says biochemist Artem Davidenko at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. This material, produced by nature, may be stronger than anything man has ever made, but researchers from the University of Trento in Italy found a way to make it even stronger: lace it with carbon. 

For the study, Nicola Pugno, a professor of solid and structural mechanics at the University of Trento, decided to combine spider silk with some of the strongest synthetic materials around: graphene and carbon nanotubes. Both are very light, thin, and incredibly conductive—meaning they could have huge implications for how materials and electronics are made. Pugno and his team sprayed several spiders with one of two solutions: water and graphene, or water and carbon nanotubes. 

The results? While some of the test spiders’ silk became weaker, others spun super-strength silk that would make even Spider-man jealous. The strongest stuff came from the arachnids that received a spritzing of water and carbon nanotubes, producing silk 3.5 times stronger and more flexible than the toughest spider silk out there (which, for the record, is already 10 times stronger than Kevlar and comes from this creature found in the depths of Madagascar). 

“This is the highest toughness modulus for a fibre, surpassing synthetic polymeric high performance fibres (e.g. Kelvar49) and even the current toughest knotted fibers,” they say. In other words, this mutant spider silk is made of the strongest fibers ever measured. 

How the spiders turned the carbon into silk is a bit of a mystery, though Pugno thinks they absorbed the material from the environment, ingesting it and then incorporating it into the silk. Another theory is that the carbon coated the silk after it was spun. 

The implications for this super-strength spider silk could be great: picture extremely strong textiles, or a new method of repairing damaged tissues. Pugno even suggests it could be used to make a net that could catch a falling aircraft. That’s some straight-up superhero stuff right there (though hopefully there won’t be a high demand for that kind of product). We’ve been coming up with new ways to use spidey silk for years and we’ve thought of everything from bulletproof clothing to better bandages to softer, more absorbent airbags. It could even be used for stitching wounds, because it maintains its strength even under extreme heat, so it could be easily sterilized. 

So why don’t we see all these wonder products yet? The problem is that producing and harvesting spider silk in bulk is really difficult, and we haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet. Spiders are cannibalistic, so the idea of colonies raised to pump out silk for commercial purposes is a bit unrealistic.

However, researchers have seen some promise in genetically engineering silkworms to produce spider silk in large amounts. Could the carbon spray method have the same effect on silkworms? That’s what Pugno wants to explore next. “This concept could become a way to obtain materials with superior characteristics," he says.

Original image
iStock
arrow
technology
Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
Original image
iStock

Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

Original image
Land Cover CCI, ESA
arrow
Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
Original image
Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios