Last Updated: May 11, 2016
Have you ever gazed up at a soaring skyscraper and wondered what it would be like to scale up the side of it à la Spider-Man? It certainly wouldn’t be for the faint of heart, but it would also be a thrilling endeavor. And now, thanks to the ingenuity of a team of Stanford University researchers, you just might have a chance to ascend a glass wall like a real-life Peter Parker.
Working in Stanford’s Biomimetics* and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, the team has created “paws” that utilize the same principles that make geckos’ feet sticky in order to allow humans to scale glass walls. Doctoral student Elliot Hawkes led the four-man team to their incredible invention, which sounds like the stuff of science fiction.
The “gloves” are actually paddles that have slots for the user’s hands. The paddles feature fiberglass tiles that have an adhesive surface of 100 microns, which is about the thickness of a strand of human hair. If you touched the surface it would feel dry and not sticky because the adhesive relies on “van der Waals force,” a phenomenon of molecular attraction and repulsion. This property allows the adhesive to stick only when you want it to—such as, say, when you’re scaling a skyscraper.
Before you jet off to California in hopes of being the next “test gecko,” bear in mind that there’s a big difference between a human and a lizard. Gecko gloves may make it possible to climb the windows of the Empire State Building, but you’d be hauling your full body weight the whole way up—which is to say, the gloves make climbing a building possible, but they don’t necessarily make it easy.
Because a human would be pulling so much weight up a glass wall, the researchers needed to find a way to transfer much of the load from the hands to the feet. Each paddle has 24 tiles, and each tile can support about 10 pounds. In order to help spread the load out equally among all the tiles, the team attached a rope and climbing rungs to the paddle to shift some of it to the feet.
The students have patents pending and, not surprisingly, their “gecko gloves” have generated a lot of buzz. Several toy companies, including Mattel, have expressed interest in the invention. A Swiss entrepreneur is meeting with the team to discuss how the gloves might be used in rock-climbing. And there is a project underway with NASA to use a version of the gloves to pick up space junk, because the adhesive will work in the vacuum and low temperatures of outer space.
Not sure about you, but we certainly hope these “gecko gloves” will be in stores soon!
"Biomimetics" is the science of adapting designs from nature for modern use. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It's a relatively new science, but if you're interested in becoming a pioneer in this growing field, you can study it at schools like Stanford and MIT.