Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Japanese scientist spins spider silk into violin strings


As a person who suffers from extreme arachnophobia, I’m glad to see the creepy 8-legged creatures being used to bring sweet sounds into the world. Japanese scientist Shigeyoshi Osaki has figured out a way to spin spider silk from the nephila maculata species, pictured below, into strings for use on violins. While in the back of my head I am afraid to listen to the music produced by an instrument armed with spider silk strings, the sound that emanates they produce is actually a pleasing, bright sound.

Osaki can be considered one of the world’s leading experts on spider-spun silk. Having studied its properties for the past 35 years, he has learned a tremendous amount about the chemical composition of the protein-based fiber. Specifically, Osaki has focused the last ten years of his research with the goal of creating violin strings in mind.

He took lessons on what kind of strength and elasticity a good violin string would need, then worked to transfer those properties to bundles of the spider produced filaments. This wasn’t an easy process as you can imagine, Osaki had to learn how to encourage the spiders to spin abnormally long silk strands, then how to bundle those into string form. His persistence and patience paid off though, as he was able to create a set of violin strings for demonstration purposes, which you can hear in the video above. The thickest of the set took 15,000 filaments to make, consisting of three bundles of 5,000.

What makes the spider silk strings unique, besides where they come from, is what happens when the bundles are twisted together. By studying the filaments at a molecular level, Osaki found that the circular cross section he was looking at became polygon shaped under torque. He attributes the different sound they make to this exciting discovery.

While violin strings made out of spider silk are a stronger alternative to traditional steel or nylon based filaments, the cost of buying a set of Osaki’s strings could be prohibitive for most musicians. He is looking into ways to mass produce the strings, but still don’t expect them to be sold at your local Wal-Mart in the near future.