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Italian boffin designs gecko-tech spiderman suit

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An Italian boffin claims to have made a breakthrough in the red-hot field of gecko-related nanoengineering, perhaps of a magnitude that might allow working spiderman suits to be built.

Nicola Pugno's paper, Towards a Spiderman suit: large invisible cables and self-cleaning releasable super-adhesive materials will be published by the Institute of Physics' journal Condensed Matter tomorrow, according to the Institute's release. It has already gained substantial notoriety, being written about as long ago as last April.

Prof Pugno, of the Polytechnic of Turin, seeks to exploit the well-known miraculous properties of the fine hairs on gecko feet. As pretty much everyone knows by now, geckoes can hang upside down on a non-metaphorical glass ceiling. Their nanoscale-fine foot hairs stick to things owing to the Van der Waals force between temporary molecular dipoles.

Researchers have recently revealed that there are few limits to the potency of squamatan-foot nanohair applications. It's thought that spinoffs might include improvements to the currently unsatisfactory state of miniaturised robot-Jesus design: or perhaps an obviously desirable ability to levitate unbelievably thin baco-foil above a goldenballs-based sheet of left handed metamaterial.

Pugno, however, scorns impractical airy-fairy notions of diminutive divinely-empowered droids or eventual squamatan-effects aerial hover cruisers. Instead, he keeps his feet firmly stuck to the ceiling. The Italian engineering boffin reckons that a spiderman suit which would let its wearer hang from buildings and swing from sticky web strands is entirely feasible.

The grippy hands and feet would be provided by coating the gloves and boots of the spidey-suit with a "hierarchical structure" of branching carbon nanotubes. These could be made self-cleaning - or superhydrophobic - so as to avoid problems with dirt or water ruining the cling. Pugno isn't, erm, totally out on a limb here: British arms firm BAE Systems has already carried out related research.

As for the web strands, these would be provided in the form of a cable made of four million nanotube fibres. The ends of the fibres would feed through holes in a 1cm-square spacer plate, keeping them 5 microns apart, and then be joined to gecko-tastic fans of branching nanohair. Thus the ends of the cable would naturally stick to things. As a side-effect, the rope would be invisible as its individual fibres would be (relatively) far apart, and each smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

Prof Pugno was already mildly famous for saying that cables made of carbon nanotubes would not be strong enough to make a space elevator system; but now he seems confident that they could do the job for a costumed superhero.

“There are many interesting applications for our theory ... for window cleaners of big skyscrapers,” he says.

“With the idea for the adhesion now in place, there are a number of other mechanics that need addressing before the Spiderman suit can become a reality ... man’s muscles, for example, are different to those of a gecko. We would suffer great muscle fatigue if we tried to stick to a wall for many hours."

Not to mention that some kind of nifty wrist-mounted launcher will be needed for shooting the nanohair-tipped sticky strands; and it could be a bit difficult getting a spidey pattern onto a superhydrophobic self-cleaning suit. It would just reject the dye. Then there are nanotube manufacturing difficulties to be overcome; it could be more practical to use actual geckoes attached in large numbers to the suit and the ends of the ropes. This would present an odd appearance, but we're talking here about a guy stuck to the underside of a bridge or something; people won't be any more flabbergasted by a gaggle of geckoes attached to his wrists by tiny lines.

But Pugno is unruffled.

“It may not be long before we are seeing people climbing up the Empire State Building with nothing but sticky shoes and gloves to support them,” he says.®

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