If you thought untangling your phone charger from the mass of leads and cables in your desk drawer was tricky, spare a thought for David Leigh and his team at the University of Manchester, who recently had to unpick a knot that featured eight ‘crossings’ despite measuring just 20 millionths of a millimetre across.
It was entirely their own fault, mind you, because they’d tied the record-breaking knot in the first place. Leigh and his colleagues are researching different ways of knotting together molecular strands of high-tech polymer strands, with a view to creating new materials.
Most of today’s strong, synthetic materials, such as Kevlar, are made up of molecular rods that line up in a parallel structure. It’s hoped that by knotting or weaving polymer strands together, we may be able to create new materials that are just as strong and durable, but that are simultaneously lighter and more flexible.
“Tying knots is a similar process to weaving, so techniques developed to tie knots in molecules should also be applicable to the weaving of molecular strands,” said Leigh. “Some polymers, such as spider silk, can be twice as strong as steel, so braiding polymer strands may lead to new generations of light, super-strong and flexible materials for fabrication and construction.”