Spider-Man may have wowed movie-goers and wooed comic fans for decades, but the idea of a wall-crawling human has always been a work of fiction. Now, however, British researchers say they have created a material that could turn cartoon fiction into scientific fact.
Experts at defense firm BAE Systems have been working on developing a new super-adherent material they say acts like "molecular Velcro." The textile, which they have labeled "Synthetic Gecko," does not use glue or pressure to stick to walls but recreates the natural adhesion of the lizard which gives it its name.
According to its creators, a sheet of Synthetic Gecko material measuring just 1m2 would be so strong that it could be used to hoist a family car into the air.
"It's still at the early stages, but we've made small sections of material which replicated what the gecko does," said the principal researcher for the project, Jeff Sargent.
The textile mimics the adhesive abilities of the famous lizard, which is able to run up walls and over windows without falling off.
Its tiny feet are covered in microscopic hairs which umbrella out at the bottom, bringing the foot so close to the wall that it is able to harness molecular levels of attraction. While the gecko's foot produces immense amounts of adherence, it can be easily "peeled off" by simply lifting the foot away from the wall. This biological ability has baffled scientists for generations, and many have attempted to replicate it without success.
But experts at BAE's research laboratories near Bristol have managed to recreate the phenomenon after months of intensive research. Their technique uses several layers of fabric, each consisting of thousands of tiny polymer strands which measure just 2 millionths of a meter across. Crucially, the strands copy the unique mushroom-like structure of the hairs on a gecko's foot, creating an immensely adherent fabric that could have numerous real-world applications.
If the material can be manufactured cheaply and in large enough quantities, its incredible grip could easily be built into shoes or other items, allowing people to scale otherwise impossibly sheer surfaces, and creating a generation of real-life Spider-Men.
"At the moment, we have only manufactured small amounts," Sargent said.
The textile has so far been used on flat surfaces covered with dust and other particles in laboratory tests. It is undergoing further development to produce an improved version which gives greater adherence in more trying conditions, such as against rough or wet surfaces.
But scientists say it is already clear that it could have revolutionary potential.
Other possible uses include emergency "sticking plasters" for aircraft or other vehicles, as well as building materials, safety harnesses and tyres.