Monday, January 30, 2012

Spider Silk Still Has Us Beat

What substance has the greatest tensile strength
on the planet? Ask a spider.
 Recently I wrote about UC Irvine and HTL Labs researchers’ unveiling of a new metal composed 99.9 percent of air with the capacity to absorb half its mass in force.  This is just the tip of the iceberg in utilizing the fairly new wave of nanotechnology, which seems to be all the rage these days. 

The promise of nanotechnology entails more than just even faster software, or turning all of us into miniature Dennis Quaids.  It could also, ironically, contribute to discovering methods for stronger, denser construction materials, resulting in even bigger, longer, stronger buildings and bridges as well as armor capable of resisting the most horrific assaults imagined and unimagined.

While there are already breakthroughs out there for venture capitalists to chuck checkbooks at, the Holy Grail of micromaterial potential is, in my opinion, still the one that’s been around the longest.  Longer than carbon nanotubes, longer than Dow Chemical, longer than even Mickey Rooney.

I’m talking about spider silk.  That ol’mainstay of your overstuffed basement.  The stuff you shriek like a girl at when you run into it.  After a few hundred thousand years of mankind discovering tools, building with them, fighting each other with them, then building with them some more, then fighting each other some more, then finding oil and making each other rich, then fighting each other over oil, then discovering the internet and dropping everything to Google why they were fighting in the first place, we still have not developed a substance with as much diversity and potential as spider silk.  Breaking it down, its tensile strength beats steel and rivals Kevlar (although one type made by Darwin’s bark spider is ten times tougher than what our Marines wear in battlefield scenarios).  Carbon nanotubing stretches longer but is not nearly as flexible, and spider silk stays solvent in both extreme freezing and boiling temperatures.

The idea to mass produce Charlotte’s web has been kicking around for quite awhile.  The problem of course is the amount of spiders one would need to compose enough silk for anything significant.  Back in ’08-09, a textile research team successfully wove an 11 x 4 foot cloth derived from 80 feet worth of silk firmament.  That cloth alone took roughly one million, two hundred thousand Madagascar golden orb spiders to produce.  Now, despite those numbers seeming rather astronomical when applied to manufacturing and construction, I have faith the US could make something like this happen.  Certainly there’s a scenario where we could sign a trade pact with Madagascar and spend billions of dollars building spider farms, raising spider colonies to maximal health and training them to spin their silk cost-efficiently through measurable certifications such as vocational school and graduate programs. 

OR, we could just make it ourselves.

AMSilk is a German biopolymer company clearly devoted to the latter.  They’ve already come up with a way to grow spider silk by feeding its proteins to E.coli bacteria (if that was all we needed to do I could’ve made spider silk out of my fridge years ago).  Although this gets the spiders out of the way, it doesn’t quite amount to a system conducive to mass production.  So they’re teaming up with Fraunhofer IAP, a company that specializes in spin processes for biopolymer materials, to put their methods on a grander scale.

It’s not like the US doesn’t have groups developing their own method of harnessing natural silk.  Nexia Biotechnologies has been funding research at the University of Wyoming to derive spider silk from goat milk, and Clemson University believes they can cultivate it from plants.

This is the kind of breakthrough that merges many different kinds of imaginations.  Think of how lighter bulletproof material could be. How far could we build a suspension bridge?  Could cars bounce off each other when they crash?  Remember, toughness and strength is only one aspect that goes into choosing materials that need to hold up over a long period time in a harsh environment.  Flexibility, as any architect will tell you, is key in finding material that will last.  I suppose synthetic metals and nanotubes hold their own promise, but natural substances like spider silk have another advantage; they’re confirmed as not toxic.  The same can’t be said for stuff that hasn’t been around long enough for adequate testing.  If you snapped your Achilles tendon in two, what would you want replacing it, material made from spider silk or a lab beaker?  Yeah, me too.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Light as a (Synthetic Micro-Latticed Metal) Feather

Researchers have developed a metal that is strong yet as light as styrofoam
 Southern California's “light and airy” reputation may give the perception it isn't the most industrious region in America. Of course, the perception of “light and airy” as non-industrious may have just been proven wrong altogether.

Researchers at UC Irvine, along with help from HTL Laboratories and the California Technology Institute of Technology recently announced the development of a metal (ish) material 99.9 percent composed of air and 100 times lighter than styrofoam. The project was funded by the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

You can read the rest of the details in Product Design and Development's article. It goes onto delve into the secret of the material's light weight (a “micro-lattice” cellular makeup) as well as its intended use (battery electrodes, shock absorption).

William Carter of HTL is also quoted as saying this:
Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight- efficient by virtue of their architecture. We are revolutionizing lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the nano and micro scales.” -William Carter, manager, HTL Labs

I'm under the suspicion this quote in particular was a juicy one to cite because of the inference that a synthetic material like this may one day be used to build future generations of skyscrapers and bridges. While the thought of how many resources a nearly-lighter-than-air building material could save global supplies, it's probably wise to keep a few things in mind:

PC World released its own take on the new material; highlighting, for one, the material's incredible compressive strength and noting that “[if] you were to squash the material more than halfway it would just rebound back into its original shape.” Okay that may be true and it's an excellent quality if we're thinking along the lines of software protection or more durable electronics. Certainly, I'd sleep safer at night knowing my smartphone had some sort of synthetic material in it to prevent my clumsy self from dropping it into permanent slumber mode. Shock absorption, however, does not translate into tensile strength, which is what we're really after here.

Yes, this stuff is lighter than carbon nanotubes, which you can read about here. But while being able to recover from high energy impact of over 50 percent is very noteworthy, nobody speaks of how this material holds up if you pull it apart with an equal amount of force (although to be fair, carbon nanotubes have the opposite problem in that they have tremendous tensile strength but buckle easily under compression). And what about its toughness? Does its strength on the nano level translate into durability with the right amount of flexibility on the macro? Moreover, just how expensive was it to make that tiny amount and is there a prayer of mass-producing it cost-efficiently?

I don't mean to rain on the ridiculously tiny, super-dense parade over here. It's just that I'd like news like this- that gets coverage from the internet to NPR to MSNBC- to come with details that bridge the gap between our ambitions and the real world just a liiiiitle more.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Basketball Player Involuntarily Demonstrates Texas’ Cryotherapy Potential

Basketball player Manny Harris gets Cryogenic therapy from
US made Cryon-X machine.
I watched Manny Harris play his rookie season as a professional basketball player last year and thought he was decent.  Not exactly star material, but could definitely develop over a few years into a solid NBA player.  He had a smooth stroke, pretty decent hops, couldn’t really play defense (Although who does anymore?) and was a tad bit undersized to deal with the grind at the Pro level. The Cleveland Cavaliers recently decided to part ways with Manny and sign someone else to round out the bottom of their roster.  Harris will most likely bounce back with another team, and most experts usually frame getting cut as a learning lesson for young athletes.
 The reason why he was cut, however, is not exactly a lesson he could have prepared for, in any reasonable way.
Apparently, Harris has been slow to recover from a severe burn on his foot he received in Cleveland’s brand new cryogenic chamber.  Darren Rovell from explains:
In November, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Manny Harris got into a Cryon-X machine on Nike's campus in Beaverton, Ore. When he came out, he had a nasty freezer burn on the side of his right foot…
The machine is the new age version of an ice bath and is the latest in athlete recovery methods. In just three minutes, the company that makes it, Millennium ICE, says the machine cranks the temperature inside to minus 166 degrees Fahrenheit, thus oxygenating the blood, helping to reduce fatigue and muscle soreness. 
But the waiver that each athlete has to sign before getting into the stand-up tank specifically says that the briefs and socks that are worn while in the machine cannot be wet. Sources told CNBC that Harris got in with wet socks, which resulted in the freezer-type burn. It's not the first time this has happened. Sprinter Justin Gatlin also got in with the socks he had just worked out in when he entered the Cryon-X machine at ESPN's Wide World of Sports in Orlando.”
                        -Darren Rovell,, Yahoo!Sports The PostGame
 I mean, when I was a kid I fell into an icy puddle in January and ran back inside howling in pain as I felt my legs being jabbed with what must have been a thousand needles.  Poor Manny Harris wore wet socks in temperatures one hundred times colder than a puddle in winter.  At that point, it’s like you don’t know where the sock ends and your flesh begins.  Like one big merged clump of fabric and skin meshed togeth- okay, I’ll stop with the grossness.  Just watch what happens to Jeff Goldblum in the last scene of The Fly.  You’ll get the idea.

Freak accidents with wet socks aside, technology like the Cryon-X is being used more and more in pro-sports. That’s because of a new method called “whole body cryotherapy” clinics are now developing.  The method involves immersing a person’s whole body in a chamber cooled with liquid nitrogen at temperatures around -120 C (-220 F) for a quick three minutes; any longer and the cryogenic chamber turns into a human icicle machine.  Cryotherapy specialists claim the effect causes the body to work a number of mechanisms in chemical release that boosts the immune system, oxygenates the blood and speeds up fatigue recovery.  So far, the pro sporting world is buying into the hype: the Dallas Mavericks apparently used cryotherapy last season when they won the championship, as well as rugby players preparing for the World Cup. 

Texas seems to be a favorite location of cryotherapy believers, as several labs and clinics who deliver the process are located there.  Cryo-USA is a new company based out of Texas Sports Medicine in Dallas and seem to focus mainly on athlete recovery.  Perhaps the most interesting story of development comes out of Cryo-Studio in Austin, founded by former Soviet track coach Galina Bukharina.  After coaching at Texas State University, Bukharina, who was a fan of cryotherapy even when she was coaching the USSR national team, opened Cryo-Studio with her children in April of 2011.  She’s been working with athletes since and she believes enough in cryogenics as physical therapy to make it her later-life legacy.

So what does the future hold?  The science is very new but if it holds up, the broad application of cryogenic hardware could be very promising and lucrative.  Cryotherapy chambers could come in handy anywhere fast recovery is necessary, not just in pro sports, but in the military, construction, firefighting, law enforcement and occasional baby-sitting job (because some children are literally going to drain your life energy; this should be taken as fact).  The demand for keeping up with today’s fast-paced work schedule could pose the kind of opportunity for this kind of technology to be produced on a large-scale.

And it’s all thanks to Manny Harris forgetting to change his socks.  Even if his career in hoops only lasts as long as Clay Aiken’s in American Idol-ing,  that’s an accomplishment to hang your  hat/footwear on.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.