Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Synthetic Spider Silk Could Be the Biggest Technological Advance in Clothing Since Nylon

Spider silk’s qualities are nearly mythical. Its tensile strength is comparable to steel’s. Yet it is lighter, and can be as stretchy as a rubber band. Those traits in combination make it tougher than Kevlar. To give you an idea: If the spider webs that shoot from Spider Man’s wrists were real spider silk, the superhero could genuinely have pulled the runaway train to a halt in that dramatic scene in Spider Man 2.

So it’s no surprise that the race is on to create a synthetic version.

After years of hype and false starts, including one now-bankrupt effort that involved genetically modified goats producing it in their milk, a few companies think they’ve figured it out. The two leading the pack are Spiber, a Japanese company, and a California-based startup called Bolt Threads. Bolt Threads believes it has the edge, and that spider silk is only the beginning of what it can do.

A real spider generates silk in specialized glands in its abdomen, and creates the silk strands using a spinning organ called a spinneret. Some spiders produce up to seven types of silk, each with its own purpose and attributes.

But unlike silkworm silk, which silkworms produce to make their cocoons (the stuff used for diaphanous dresses and smart neckties), spider silk can’t be farmed in large quantities because spiders are cannibals, and will eat one another in close quarters.

Bolt Threads doesn’t use spiders to make its silk. The principal ingredients are genetically modified yeast, water, and sugar. The raw silk is produced through fermentation, much like brewing beer, except instead of the yeast turning the sugar into alcohol, they turn it into the raw stuff of spider silk. Bolt Threads spins that into threads using a method similar to the wet-spinning process used to create cellulose-based fibers such as Lyocell. Levin says it’s molecularly the same as natural spider silk, except for a few deliberate variations that only a chemical biologist would recognize.

Synthetic spider silk could be used for everything from automobile parts to medical devices to performance outdoor gear, which is the area that’s attracting some of the most attention thus far. Bolt Threads recently announced a $50 million round of funding, as well as a new partnership with the outdoor brand Patagonia, which demonstrates a major vote of confidence in its technology.

Neither Bolt Threads nor Patagonia will give details on what products they’re working on just yet, but Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s director of material innovation, promises when something does come out, it will be “awesome.”

“We think they’ve cracked the code,” he says. “For them to have come up with this capability… is just the kind of stuff that blows your mind.”

by Marc Bain, Quartz |  Read more:
Image: Bolt Threads