Luca Alessandrini and his composite violin. Photo: Imperial College London.
Luca Alessandrini and his composite violin. Photo: Imperial College London.

A violin made from a composite material that includes spiders' silk, allowing its acoustics to be customized, has been developed at Imperial College London in the UK.

Spiders’ silk is strong and elastic. When a creature is caught in a web and struggles to break free, the web resonates or vibrates, sending the spider a message that it needs to scuttle swiftly across the web and make a meal out of its prey.

Now, Luca Alessandrini, a postgraduate at the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial, has developed a composite material that exploits the resonating properties of spiders’ silk, and used this material to make a prototype violin. He impregnated the violin’s top side with three strands of golden silk spun by an Australian Golden Orb spider.

When played, the spiders’ silk vibrates the violin’s composite casing, with these vibrations emitted as sound; in the musical world, this phenomenon is called propagation velocity. Instrument makers spend their entire lives experimenting with different types of wood and alternative materials such as carbon fiber to exploit this phenomenon in order to improve or vary the acoustic properties of instruments.

The composite material also comprises other types of silk and a binding agent. The combination of different silk fibers and the method of mixing them together allows Alessandrini to engineer the propagation velocity in his composite material. The same basic approach could permit the acoustics of other musical instruments to be customized, depending on the sound that is required, and could also be applied to the manufacture of products such as speakers, amplifiers and headphones.

“The amazing properties of spider’s silk mean that it serves many purposes,” said Alessandrini. “It’s a home, a net for catching food and a means of communicating – via vibrations – when prey is ready to be pounced on and devoured. Spiders’ silk has only previously been exploited as string in bows for instruments, but I’ve discovered that the amazing resonating property of spiders’ silk has massive potential uses in instruments themselves.”

Alessandrini developed his prototype violin in conjunction with the Associazione Nazionale Liutai Artistici Italiani, one of the world’s most influential violin-making associations. Its founder, Gualtiero Nicolini, put him in contact with 20 of the world’s leading violin makers and musical instrument repairers, called luthiers, in the city of Cremona, Italy. Home to more than 400 instrument makers, Cremona is the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737), creator of the world-famous Stradivarius violin.

Alessandrini has also demonstrated the violin to Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a Grammy nominated violinist and Viotti Lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

“I have been working with great violinists my entire career and I have been in discussions with makers and players about the limited capabilities of other man-made materials such as carbon fiber. These have not seemed to offer the organic subtleties of wood,” said Sheppard Skaerved. “My encounter with the prototype instrument developed by Luca has filled me with excitement. This approach offers a tremendous opportunity to move forward instrument making, using new materials in a way I have long hoped.”

The Golden Orb spiders’ silk was sourced from Fritz Vollrath, a professor in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University. One of the main reasons for choosing this silk is because it is one of the strongest in the world.

The technology was patented in June 2016. The next steps will see Alessandrini using more sophisticated technologies and modelling processes in the manufacturing process. He is also establishing a start-up business and is looking for partners. He predicts the technology will be in the marketplace by approximately 2017.

This story is adapted from material from Imperial College London, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.