Last week, Imperial College London hosted the International Student Innovation Awards. The winner astonished everyone with a violin made with spider silk.

Luca Alessandrini was awarded the £10,000 prize for the design of a biomaterial-based violin that can be engineered to customize the final sound. With the new funds and a patent filed, the designer is now looking for co-founders to launch a start-up and expects to reach the market by 2017.

The body of the instrument is mostly made of a blend of silk and resin. But the key for the violin’s unique sound, praised by expert luthiers and violin players, are three strands of Australian golden orb weaver silk placed under the bridge. This biomaterial is 5 times stronger than steel and incredibly elastic.

Luca Alessandrini silk violin

Oxford University donated the rare and expensive Australian golden orb silk that gives the instrument outstanding sound properties

Material acoustics is a field with very few innovations and many instruments are still made from wood despite that it’s an expensive, heavy and unsustainable material. What’s more, wood is a very complex material and scientists still haven’t reached a consensus on what makes some instruments, like the famous Stradivari violins, sound better than others.

In the case of violins, carbon fiber is a popular alternative to wood because it has a high wave propagation velocity. However, experts are usually not satisfied with its performance in comparison to traditional wood instruments. Spider silk would be a much better alternative, since it can propagate sound twice as quickly as carbon fiber.

Luca Alessandrini silk violin blind test

Luca’s silk violin was compared with traditional wood instruments in blind tests at the New Scientist exhibition and the V&A Museum in London

In future work, Luca wants to explore different ways of mixing and weaving spider silk into the instrument to customize the final sound. The project does not stop with violins: the designer has also created and tested speakers made out of his silk and resin blend. In theory, any instrument could be recreated with the new tunable material, which would give the old-fashioned musical instrument industry a whole new level of possibilities to control the final sound.

As a violin player myself, I’m impressed that such a breakthrough has been made in an area where tradition is the norm. I can’t wait to try these new cool instruments!

All pictures by Luca Alessandrini

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  • Edouard

    Wood is an unsustainable material? Really? Be serious one second, an over expensive mix of resin (so sustainable) and spider silk (almost impossible to produce in big quantity) is definitely the future to replace this old fashionable, unsustainable material that is wood… be serious one second, you can be enthusiastic about an innovation without being ridiculous with the argument you use to defend it.

  • Turina

    The article is not about any wood. Author mentions fine old protected woods needed to make nice sounding string instruments which are already difficult to find: pernambuco from Brazil for bows, spruce and maple from Central Europe forests for instrument bodies. Fresh wood is available but their sound quality is poorer. So, research on new materials for instrument bodies is always very welcome, as it was back in the 80´s for fiber glass and carbon materials for bows. After 500 years of continuous testing, strings also changed for good from animal gut to synthetic core and metals. Musical thanks and keep going!!!