Could spider silk weave a solution to better hearing aids?

By Greg Hamilton • Published: February 23rd, 2018
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

What would you do if you found a spider web in your ear? Probably some sort of dance step halfway between Zumba and the Watusi as you tried to clear your ear. Some day in the future, however, you may be glad to have that addition. If you have trouble hearing, that is.

Scientists are working on a way to make hearing aid microphones based on spider silk because the ultrafine threads could produce much higher sound quality.

Mosquitos, flies and spiders all have fine hairs on their bodies that move with sound waves that travel through the air. We humans, by contrast, use our eardrums, which sense pressure changes and tell the brain where a sound is coming from. Researchers at Binghamton University in New York have created a microphone based on spider silk that they hope can lead to better microphones for hearing aids than traditional pressure-based systems.

Spider silk can pick up the airflow and detect its direction with great accuracy, but for it to be of any use the information must be translated into an electronic signal. The researchers achieved that by coating the silk in gold. They then put it into a magnetic field where it was able to conduct electricity. The fibers are so thin and strong they were able to detect tiny motions over a broad range of frequencies.

Experts say this technique could lead to small directional microphones that can process signals to ward off unwanted sounds. These someday could be used in cellphones, computers and hearing aids.

So, if you see a spider scampering across the kitchen floor, perhaps pause before lowering the boom on him. He may just hold the key to a better future for people struggling to hear.