What would it take for you to become a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man? How could you create a web strong enough to stop a train? What kind of a spiderweb device would you need to invent? You know, I’m something of a scientist myself.
Peter Parker, also known as Spider-Man, developed his arachnid abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider. This gave him superhuman strength and reflexes, as well as the ability to crawl on walls. But the Spidey skill you’re most interested in is the web. That’s what allows Peter Parker to swing around skyscrapers and tangle up baddies.
Spiders make their webs from silk, a natural protein fiber. They produce this liquid protein in a cluster of organs in their abdomen called spinnerets. Once ejected, the protein forms into fibers that spriders pull out of their bodies with their hind legs. So if you wanted to make your own web, would you need spider organ implants?
Sorry to say, but we’re not going to wait around for you to get bitten by a radioactive spider. Let’s come up with our own web-slinging alternative. You might have heard that spider silk is stronger than steel. And when it comes to physical properties like tensile strength, this would be technically true. But your average spiderweb couldn’t catch a human or support you dangling from the Empire State Building.
There are seven different silk glands in spiders. They all produce different silk. But no spider has all seven. Some spiders produce silks with a lovely golden sheen. Others with a white or bluish hue. But you’d be looking for the toughest. Check out the Darwin bark spider. A 1 mm (0.4 in) thick thread of this silk could support the weight of a panda dangling from it.
Tough, but not tough enough. Switch over to a maraging steel cable of the same thickness. Now your web could support the weight of a full-grown gorilla. But for the heroic acts you’d need to accomplish as a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, like stopping a train moving at full speed, you’d need something lightweight and tougher than steel. Like a carbon nanotube rope.
At a thickness of 2 mm (0.08 in), this material would have enough tension to catch a falling car without breaking. Though, you’d certainly need to hit the gym and build up your non-superhero human strength. With that all sorted, you’d need to pack that into Spider-Man’s watch-sized wrist contraption, and you’d be ready to save the day. Well, almost ready.
Imagine you wanted to make one single swing from a 10 story building. You’d need 20 m (65 ft) of carbon nanotube rope. The volume of the rope you’d need for that one use would be similar to the volume of one-and-a-half golf balls. You’d certainly want to swing more than once. If you tried 50 times per hand, you’d need your wrist containers to be about 10 cm (4 in) in length.
Hardly inconspicuous. But it sure beats the heavy backpack you’d need for the same amount of steel cable. Now you’d need to calibrate the rope’s launch speed. Let’s start with that 10 story building. Your rope would need to launch at a speed higher than 24 m/s (54 mph) to reach that height. That’s about three times slower than an arrow shot from a bow.
You’d get more reach if you stick to catching villains. Launching your rope at a 45-degree angle onto a thief below would mean your web could reach a distance of about 60 m (200 ft). All this carbon nanotube rope would allow you to do some pretty incredible things. But it would still not be as exciting as Spider-Man’s silk webs.
We’re still waiting on science to work that out. Recently researchers used a modified strand of E. coli bacteria to create silk. It behaved like spider silk and was even a bit stronger. Maybe while they are working on that, you could figure out how to make all this material dissolvable. Imagine walking to work and seeing all the rats, raccoons and pigeons trapped in tons of sticky webs.
- “Spider-Man (Peter Parker) On Screen Profile | Marvel”. 2022. marvel.com.
- “Arachnid | Definition, Facts, & Examples”. 2022. britannica.com.
- “This Engineer Has Come Closer To Creating Real-Life Spider-Man Web Shooters Than Anyone”. Andrew Liszewski. 2021. gizmodo.com.
- “What Are Spider Webs Made Of? And How Do They Spin Them?”. Lisa Hendry. 2022. nhm.ac.uk.
- “The Physics Of Spider-Man’s Webs”. Nast Condé. 2014. wired.com.