You sit perched on the side of a skyscraper, high above the streets of Manhattan and tap two fingers against the palm of your hand. A web shoots forth, ensnaring a fleeing criminal.
With "The Amazing Spider-Man" coming out Tuesday, this scenario is now only half as crazy as it seemed 50 years ago when your friendly neighborhood webslinger made his debut. Scientists across the country are hard at work trying to develop these arachnid traits--without the aid of a bite from a radioactive spider.
It's impossible to know how many trips to the emergency room have been necessitated by a kid's ill-conceived attempt to emulate their friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. But a team of researchers led by professor Paul Steen at Cornell University says they are close to making that climb up a sheer wall a reality.
Inspired by a palm beetle (rather than a spider) indigenous to Florida, Steen's team is looking at harnessing the power of surface tension. Specifically, Steen plans to use the same force that makes two glasses still wet from the dishwasher stick together like super glue to make wall-crawling possible.
The feet of the palm beetle are dotted with microscopic holes that secrete a fluid that allows them create a bond, powered by surface tension, with a leaf, explains Steen.
"By putting dental wax just on the back of these (bugs) and hanging weights on them, (we) found they could withstand forces that are 100 times their body weight. So, you know if you take your weight and multiply it by 100, you’ve got six or seven automobiles."
When word of Steen's research broke two years ago, he had developed a pad 100 square centimeters in size and about the width of a credit card that could support 28 pounds by pumping water through holes only 10 microns wide, which is about the size of a red blood cell.
Called a Switchable Electronically-controlled Capillary Adhesion Device (SECAD), Steen's gadget works by having an electrical charge pump water through the microscopic holes to create surface tension. The more holes, the stronger the hold. What's truly amazing is that it works on a variety of materials, including Plexiglas, plywood, brick and linoleum.
If he can develop the technology to make holes only 1 micron across, one of his pads could support 280 pounds—put one each on your hands and feet, and you can support more than 1,000 pounds, more than enough to support a budding crime fighter.
Unfortunately, Steen's funding from the Defense Department has dried up, leaving him to consider soliciting donations. Asked how long it would take to have a wall-crawling suit ready for action if Stark Industries showed up with a check for $5 million, Steen lets out a laugh.
"With $5 million, I could do it in a year...maybe two years-with some man power," he says.
The past few years have seen incredible advances in web technology, as well, as scientists have made golden capes and violin strings from spider webs, and have moved closer and closer to being able to heal wounds with the stuff.
But the biggest breakthrough has been the development of genetically modified silk worms that create spider-like silk in large quantities. Harvesting the silk directly from spiders proved untenable because, well, it's really hard to milk a spider and because arachnids' cannibalistic tendencies make them impossible to farm.
But continuing the research done by professor Don Jarvis at the University of Wyoming, Malcolm Fraser at Notre Dame says he has reached the point where his silk worms are doing their part--what he needs now is a partner to ramp up the production of the silk.
"It’s already being explored quite extensively as a fabric made of silk that could be for the undergarments for the military, because it can absorb much more effectively the impact of small particles from fragmentary explosions," said Fraser. "Those are often very difficult to dig out from an individual, so if you can stop them at the level of the undergarment, there’s a lot of advantages to that."
Sounds like an ideal fabric for Spider-Man suit, too. Though the technology, if not the funds, are at hand for producing mass quantities of spider silk, getting webs to come flying out of a wrist shooter is a long way off.
"If it’s possible to extrude the fiber from a dope [serum], which people are trying to do currently, that’s a mechanical engineering feat. If it’s possible, you could have something that could potentially shoot it out, although that’s not the way that the spider makes it. They pull it out. So, that mechanical shooting capability is already something that’s questionable."
Making the webshooter even harder to develop is that fact that spiders make at least seven different types of silk, each with varying properties.
"He’d have to know how to mix the dope to create the right kind of fiber, if you will. He’d need a really strong fiber to swing on that has some elasticity to it, but you don’t want a whole lot because then you’re going to be bouncing around like on a bungee cord. You’d have to mix that dope in such a way that you get the right consistency for the right physical properties."
So while the wall-crawling outfit is tantalizingly close, it would appear the web shooter is a long way off.
"I would not rule it out as a possibility ultimately, but yeah, I’d say 50 or maybe 100 years," Fraser said.