Updated: Apr 10
The new Spiderman movie – ‘No Way Home’ has introduced the MCU to the multiverse but while watching the movie, I kept thinking about one aspect quite unrelated to the premise of the movie but the most important tool to our hero – his web-shooters. His web-shooters allow him to swing from buildings, make great escapes, tie up and attack villains etc. But what is his web actually made up of? Which material allows such strength that it's able to hold, cars dangling off bridges yet is lightweight and flexible?
The web fluid is in the comics, called ‘Spider Silk’ – based on actual spider silk - is a shear-thinning liquid similar to nylon. In contact with air, the long-chain polymer knits and forms a tough flexible fiber with adhesive properties. It is supposed to have a higher weight to strength ratio than even titanium. The solid web adhesive properties diminish when exposed to air due to certain esters imbibed in the formula and hence eventually the web dissolves into powder.
“Natural Spider silk is a unique material that is extremely lightweight yet very, very strong. A single strand of dragline silk—which is what spiders suspend themselves from their web with—is roughly five times as strong as steel at the same diameter.”
In the first real-life production of spiderman (the Sony version from 2002) starring Tobey Maguire, it was shown that the webs of spiderman came from inside of him. However, that is not in fact true, in the comics, he artificially engineered the webs, and henceforth in every other adaptation of Spidermen be it in the MCU or the cartoon series, he uses web-shooters. How did he actually make the shooters in the comics? It is not known. The entire process of creating a web shooter and its composition is so secretive that Stan Lee himself only devoted a single panel to the entire process.
What we do know from the first issue is that the substance is so strong that it can hold Parker’s weight and allow him to dangle off buildings without the web breaking. Later it was revealed that Peter had been experimenting with adhesives on his own for quite some time, hoping to earn money for his college education. Alas, he was not successful; while he was able to create an incredibly strong substance, it quickly dissolved after an hour or so. Once he became Spiderman, however, this was not an issue for him as he just wanted to create temporary spiderwebs.
The movies on the other hand offer a lot of clues about the composition of Spider Silk. An easter egg for Spiderman Homecoming clearly shows the entire process of creating the spider web. The link is here. But is this actually accurate? Peter Parker is broke - a point re-iterated in the comics a million times. Hence the material and process of making the web fluid should be cost-effective. He has access to his school laboratory and from the Homecoming movie, we know that the facilities provided by the school are pretty decent. Most of the materials needed are actually quite cheap and easily available in any chemist shop, except for heptane (part of the same homologous series as petrol) but can be obtained by fractional distillation of crude oil which is not that expensive.
The structure at the bottom of the page is what we expect to get when we finish the process described in the snippet. This structure can in fact hypothetically form polymers with cross-linkages giving it high tensile strength and the formation of cross-linkages happens in a few seconds. All the chemicals do in fact form polymers! However, in reality, this is not possible because it is not possible for any polymer to form within a second and achieve astronomical tensile strength. Secondly, there should be cross-linkages which is what really makes a polymer strong and these cross linkages need a lot of heat and pressure. Polythene itself needs 200 deg Celsius and 2000 ATP, to form the bags we know. This may be possible however with the help of his web-shooters and Stark technology. Technically the only reason why this is possible in the MCU and not in our universe is because of Spiderman’s web-shooters. The technology of the MCU is far more advanced and his web-shooters would provide the heat and pressure to form the high-strength polymers.
The closest we can get to his web fluid is carbon nano yarns. They are long, flexible, and strong with conductive properties currently used for energy and electrochemical water treatment. Remarkably it also looks very similar to Spiderman’s web. However, it is not fluid-based, and like the name suggests it is a yarn. Another material that can be used to create the web fluid is Polyvinyl Alcohol, which has a fairly high strength, is water-soluble, and is quite cheap. You can also buy hydrolyzed variants. It’s available in amateur chem sets and in fabric stores as a thread. It's water-soluble and hence can be washed out in the rain, making this a very good base for a web fluid.
As a matter of fact, we have gotten quite close to creating Parker’s web fluid. In 2019 scientists were able to successfully crack the code in developing synthetic spider silk by modifying bacteria. “Engineers have tried for decades to create a synthetic mimic from genetically modified bacteria, yeast, and even goat milk, but have always fallen short." Finally, they were able to modify strands of E. Coli bacteria, resulting in a material that is virtually identical to the web fluid. Scientists are now focusing on creating full spider silk strands next.
With technology rapidly advancing every day, I don’t think it will be surprising if we manage to achieve the web fluid formula soon. But at the same time in the comics and any adaptation of the web-slinging hero, it was only Spiderman who was able to successfully create his web-shooters, many tried but failed. Will we ever see fully functional web-shooters any time soon? That is a question I believe only Peter Parker will be able to answer.