Fans of Marvel Comics have for years played the game of combining the powers of superheroes to pump up their invincibility levels - the strength of the Incredible Hulk when he's angry, say, with the flying speed of Superman and the web-throwing agility of Spiderman. Scientists in research laboratories play the same games - but for real. Developers at the
Spider silk - as any fan of Marvel Comics knows - is one of the strongest and most flexible natural materials. Its tensile strength makes it the envy of engineers, who have searched for decades to find ways to mimic it, including growing spider silk in the stomachs of goats so that it can be produced faster and in greater volumes unaided.
Carbon nanotubes are made by exploiting the multi-combinable structure of carbon, which allows atoms to be arranged into stable structures such as buckminsterfullerene, or "buckyballs", in which the atoms form a globe shape - and tubes. The stability of these arrangements means that carbon nanotubes can be strong, long and flexible.
By coating spider silk in carbon nanotubes, the team - who report on their work in the journal Nature - have created a hybrid that is tougher than spider silk and conducts electricity. Possible uses for the material cited by the researchers include heart pulse sensors and other bioelectrical devices.
Comic fans may speculate about the potential for conductive spider webs - and what a superhero could do with those.
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