SDSUxCOMIC-CON: Engineering His Spidey Senses | message center


Spider-Man enthusiast Francisco Botello combines his love for his favorite superhero and his engineering studies through his research into spider silk.

A giant green Hulk smashing things up? Total Fantasy. A magic lasso forcing you to tell the truth? Scientifically impossible.

But being able to swing from buildings with spider silk?

“Totally realistic,” said a student at San Diego State University Francisco Botello. “Two millimeters of silk can support up to 900 pounds, so Spider-Man has super strength and weighs 160? It’s nothing.”

This Comic-Con season, Botello is here to tell you that the mechanics Peter Parker uses as Spider-Man are actually possible. He would know: he studies the mechanical strength of spider silk.

As the aspiring fourth-year mechanical engineer walks through the lab with his Spider-Man backpack, he names different species of spiders in different areas of the room: Black Widow, Nephila, Silver Argiope, Gold Orb Weaver. He learned these names long before he joined the lab.

“When I was younger, I loved the Spider-Man animated series so much that I would go around collecting spiders and analyzing the different species,” Botello said.

As a kid, Botello says he immediately identified with Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s secret identity: “He was a nerdy high school kid who had a passion for science and did his best to help other people. I wasn’t the most popular either and I looked like him, so I connected with him that way.”

In his freshman year at SDSU, when Botello read a NewsCenter article about spider silk research, he sent an email Gregory Holland, professor of analytical chemistry and head of the laboratory, and asked if he could be there, if only to clean the facility. “I thought this might be an opportunity for me to rethink something I was really passionate about as a kid.”

Although Botello is primarily a chemistry lab with researchers analyzing spider silk at the molecular level, Botello was tricked into viewing the silk through an engineering lens.

In the lab, Botello tests different spider silks on different spiders. With more than 45,000 spider species and each spider producing up to seven different types of silk, there are many properties of spider silk to analyze.

Botello measures the tensile strength, toughness and other material properties of each type of silk. Scientists have said that spider silk pound-per-pound tests are significantly stronger than steel, meaning spider silk is well suited to replacing Kevlar in bulletproof clothing, replacing steel cables, or even serving as nature’s free brand of bandages.

The lab allows Botello to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a mechanical engineer and scientist, just like Peter Parker: “He makes his own spider silk and has an extensive knowledge of spider silk. He needs at least some mechanical knowledge to be able to calculate: ‘Is this building tall enough to swing from?’”

With a leadership minor, Botello takes Peter Parker’s quote to heart: “With great power comes great responsibility”. He is passionate about materials science and hopes to find a full-time position researching textile materials after he graduates.

Another material Botello is particularly interested in is carbon nanotubes, which some suggest are even stronger than spider silk. “If we can combine synthetic spider silk with carbon nanotubes, maybe we could create something even stronger.”

Though he hasn’t had the chance to attend Comic-Con yet, the San Diego native hopes to go there in the years to come. As he moves on into his senior year, he looks forward to learning more about the intricate webs that spiders build and being inspired by nature: “I think of spiders as the world’s first engineers.”

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