When most people encounter a computer with cobweb-covered insides, they reach for a can of pressurized air. But that could soon change.
Researchers have discovered that spider silk conducts heat more efficiently than almost any other material on Earth; which means the day could be fast approaching when spider webs actually belong on your electronics.
If you push your computer hard enough, it will overheat and crash. To keep this from happening, your computer, like most electronics, is built with components that can get rid of heat as quickly as possible. Generally speaking, organic materials are pretty crummy at dissipating heat, so it's not exactly surprising that when you crack open your computer there's no living matter wiring everything together. But that could soon change, thanks to the newly uncovered heat-conducting properties of spider silk, aka nature's go-to wonder substance.
The discovery was made by a team of scientists at Iowa State University, who demonstrated that silk taken from golden silk orbweaver spiders could conduct heat 800 times better than any other organic material ever tested.
Granted, we just established that organic materials suck at dissipating heat; even if spider silk's heat-conducting properties are hundreds of times better than any known organic substance, can they actually stand up to those of inorganic materials?
According to lead researcher Xinwei Wang: Yes, and then some. The team showed that the silk was able to conduct heat at a rate of 416 watts per meter Kelvin. As a point of reference, your skin conducts heat at a measly 0.6 W/m-K, but copper dials in at 401 W/m-K. In other words, when compared with copper — one of the most commonly used heat-dissipating materials in the world — spider silk comes out on top. In fact, when the researchers pitted the silk against well-known thermal conductors like silicon aluminum, and pure iron, the spider silk bested them all. According to Wang, diamond and silver were the only materials tested that performed better.
The researchers think that the secret to the silk's conductivity may have something to do with its unique molecular structure, which is made up of a resilient combination of hard, crystalline segments and dynamic, elastic ones. By understanding this macroscopic architecture more intimately, Wang and his colleagues think they can push spider silk's thermal conductivity even farther, for applications in everything from electronics, to warm-weather clothing, to bandages that help keep patients cool.
The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of Advanced Materials.