Spider silk could power microphones in smartphones and hearing aids

October 31, 2017 //By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Research from Binghamton University, State University of New York shows that fine fibers like spider silk actually improve the quality of microphones for hearing aids and potentially smartphones.

Ron Miles, a distinguished professor at Binghamton University and graduate student Jian Zhou recently published a study titled "Sensing fluctuating airflow with spider silk" that should lead to better microphones than traditional pressure-based systems.

Miles has carries out a number of studies looking at what we can learn from insects when it comes to hearing. He explained, "We use our eardrums, which pick up the direction of sound based on pressure, but most insects actually hear with their hairs." The spider silk is able to pick up the velocity of the air instead of the pressure of the air.

Mosquitos, flies and spiders all have fine hairs on their bodies that move with the sounds waves traveling through the air. Miles wanted to recreate this type of hearing inside a microphone.

The reseachers have developed a microphone that improves the directional sensing across a wide variety of frequencies that are often too quiet for microphones to pick up on. For someone with a hearing aid, that means being able to cancel out background noise when having a conversation in a crowded area. The same concept could be applied to the microphone inside cell phones.

Spider silk is thin enough that it also can move with the air when hit by soundwaves. "This can even happen with infrasound at frequencies as low as 3 hertz," said Miles. Sound at that frequency is typically inaccessible. It'd be equivalent to hearing the tectonic plates moving in an earthquake.