Lockdown Spiderweb Inspiration Leads Scientists to Ultra-Precise Web-Based Vibration Sensor

An undusted hallway in which spiders had made their homes leads to a breakthrough in room-temperature measurement of fundamental forces.

A team of TU Delft researchers have created an ultra-precise vibration sensor for everything from quantum computing to the study of gravity and dark matter — taking inspiration from spiders' webs.

"I've been doing this work already for a decade when, during lockdown, I noticed a lot of spiderwebs on my terrace," joint lead researcher Richard Norte explains. "I realized spiderwebs are really good vibration detectors, in that they want to measure vibrations inside the web to find their prey, but not outside of it, like wind through a tree. So why not hitch-hike on millions of years of evolution and use a spiderweb as an initial model for an ultra-sensitive device?"

"We knew that the experiments and simulations were costly and time-consuming," adds joint lead Miguel Bessa, of how the inspiration was turned into a functional device, so with my group we decided to use an algorithm called Bayesian optimization, to find a good design using few attempts."

The machine learning system employed to create the spiderweb which would sit at the heart of the sensor offered a surprisingly simple answer made up of six strings. Despite this, the design is capable of detecting even tiny vibrations — and of operating at room temperature.

Built by co-first author Andrea Cupertino, the microchip sensor with nano-scale web inside was tested by introducing vibrations and measuring how long it took for the vibrations to stop — measurements that revealed a record-breaking sensor design.

"We found almost no energy loss outside of our microchip web: The vibrations move in a circle on the inside and don’t touch the outside," Norte explains. "This is somewhat like giving someone a single push on a swing, and having them swing on for nearly a century without stopping."

The web-based sensor has applications, the team explains, in sensing the ultra-small forces involved in the study of gravitational fields or dark matter, and could also find a home in quantum computing and communications systems.

The team's work has been published in the journal Advanced Materials under open-access terms.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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