Scientists from Cornell University in New York say the technology was inspired by a beetle that can stick to a leaf with a force 100 times greater than its own weight.
The research has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Spiderman’s skills at scaling buildings was a comic book creation, but the device – a small plate made of metal and silicon that is no thicker than a credit card – recreates the superhero’s adhesive capabilities.
Dr Sally Gras from the University of Melbourne says the research is groundbreaking.
“It has little droplets on it that allow you to stick the device to a surface and then unstick it – so effectively to turn adhesion on and off,” she said.
“Previously you might have used things like suction to try and stick devices or glue to permanently stick things. This device allows you to turn on and off the adhesion in less than a milli-second.”
The Cornell University researchers have spoken about the device leading to applications that could allow shoes or gloves to stick to walls or post-it notes that can bear heavier weight loads.
Dr Gras says there are a number of practical applications for the device.
“It could change things like robotics where you’re trying to pick and drop off objects, and it also has a whole range of potential applications in nano-technology, where you may want to make a surface have water droplets on it and then be able to have droplets roll off it.”
University of Melbourne biomolecular engineer Professor David Dunstan says the scientists turned to nature for their design, copying a native beetle that sticks to leaves as a form of defence.
“This beetle apparently uses it to … drive liquid by generating some sort of electrical, or electro-osmotic response, [it’s] really quite amazing,” he said.
“But then most of the things we do in science are really just following nature and trying to understand what it is really.”
Professor Dunstan says it is possible that Spiderman’s sticky capabilities could be replicated, but issued a word of warning.
“Spiderman would have to be pretty nifty and understand or at least have some idea about the surfaces that you were going to jump onto, because some surfaces it would not work on,” he said.
“The difference between an oil-type surface or something that emulates oil and something which is what we would call a wetting surface – it would stick to one surface where it wants to wet, if you then tried to stick onto an oil surface, it would just slide off.
“There would be no adhesion and so he might come a cropper.”