Research unlocks Spiderman's climbing secrets

Emulating the sticking power of the gecko Image: David Clements

September 3, 2007 Physicists at the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, have designed a suit that could allow its wearer to scale walls like Spider-man. The suit is the latest proposed application of carbon nanotubes, a technology currently being researched by Polytechnic’s Professor Nicola Pugno that has potential applications in areas ranging from electrical circuitry to Space Elevators.

Research conducted by scientists in the US in 2002 demonstrates that the ability of geckos to stick to walls as a result of a molecular attraction named the van der Waals force. While weak compared to other forms of bonding between molecules, the large amount of microscopic hairs on the feet of a gecko generate enough van der Waals energy to overcome gravity.

With applications for a successful sticky-suit including space exploration, military ops, window cleaning and rescue missions, the desire to emulate the gecko is not localized. Stanford University in California created a gecko robot in 2006 and, though using vacuum rather than van der Waals energy, Gerald Winkler at the Stuttgart National Academy of Visual Arts has created a “gekkomat” bodysuit.

By replicating the mechanisms of a gecko’s climbing ability more closely with carbon nanotubes, Professor Nicola Pugno’s design may be the first to accurately replicate natures design. Pugno hopes that, like the hairs on a gecko’s foot, the micro fibres on the sticky suit would be self-cleaning and water resistant, thereby immune to clogging. The effectiveness of the suit could also be drastically increased by placing the fibres in a hierarchical structure, similar to the way they evolved on the pad of a gecko.

Unfortunately, the suit won’t exactly enable a zero-to-hero transition by itself, as the amount of muscular energy required to stick to walls and ascend them is quite high.

For further reading on Professor Pugno's research into the use of carbon nanotubes for a space elevator visit this link.

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