Monday, January 30, 2012

Spider Silk Still Has Us Beat

What substance has the greatest tensile strength
on the planet? Ask a spider.
 Recently I wrote about UC Irvine and HTL Labs researchers’ unveiling of a new metal composed 99.9 percent of air with the capacity to absorb half its mass in force.  This is just the tip of the iceberg in utilizing the fairly new wave of nanotechnology, which seems to be all the rage these days. 

The promise of nanotechnology entails more than just even faster software, or turning all of us into miniature Dennis Quaids.  It could also, ironically, contribute to discovering methods for stronger, denser construction materials, resulting in even bigger, longer, stronger buildings and bridges as well as armor capable of resisting the most horrific assaults imagined and unimagined.

While there are already breakthroughs out there for venture capitalists to chuck checkbooks at, the Holy Grail of micromaterial potential is, in my opinion, still the one that’s been around the longest.  Longer than carbon nanotubes, longer than Dow Chemical, longer than even Mickey Rooney.

I’m talking about spider silk.  That ol’mainstay of your overstuffed basement.  The stuff you shriek like a girl at when you run into it.  After a few hundred thousand years of mankind discovering tools, building with them, fighting each other with them, then building with them some more, then fighting each other some more, then finding oil and making each other rich, then fighting each other over oil, then discovering the internet and dropping everything to Google why they were fighting in the first place, we still have not developed a substance with as much diversity and potential as spider silk.  Breaking it down, its tensile strength beats steel and rivals Kevlar (although one type made by Darwin’s bark spider is ten times tougher than what our Marines wear in battlefield scenarios).  Carbon nanotubing stretches longer but is not nearly as flexible, and spider silk stays solvent in both extreme freezing and boiling temperatures.

The idea to mass produce Charlotte’s web has been kicking around for quite awhile.  The problem of course is the amount of spiders one would need to compose enough silk for anything significant.  Back in ’08-09, a textile research team successfully wove an 11 x 4 foot cloth derived from 80 feet worth of silk firmament.  That cloth alone took roughly one million, two hundred thousand Madagascar golden orb spiders to produce.  Now, despite those numbers seeming rather astronomical when applied to manufacturing and construction, I have faith the US could make something like this happen.  Certainly there’s a scenario where we could sign a trade pact with Madagascar and spend billions of dollars building spider farms, raising spider colonies to maximal health and training them to spin their silk cost-efficiently through measurable certifications such as vocational school and graduate programs. 

OR, we could just make it ourselves.

AMSilk is a German biopolymer company clearly devoted to the latter.  They’ve already come up with a way to grow spider silk by feeding its proteins to E.coli bacteria (if that was all we needed to do I could’ve made spider silk out of my fridge years ago).  Although this gets the spiders out of the way, it doesn’t quite amount to a system conducive to mass production.  So they’re teaming up with Fraunhofer IAP, a company that specializes in spin processes for biopolymer materials, to put their methods on a grander scale.

It’s not like the US doesn’t have groups developing their own method of harnessing natural silk.  Nexia Biotechnologies has been funding research at the University of Wyoming to derive spider silk from goat milk, and Clemson University believes they can cultivate it from plants.

This is the kind of breakthrough that merges many different kinds of imaginations.  Think of how lighter bulletproof material could be. How far could we build a suspension bridge?  Could cars bounce off each other when they crash?  Remember, toughness and strength is only one aspect that goes into choosing materials that need to hold up over a long period time in a harsh environment.  Flexibility, as any architect will tell you, is key in finding material that will last.  I suppose synthetic metals and nanotubes hold their own promise, but natural substances like spider silk have another advantage; they’re confirmed as not toxic.  The same can’t be said for stuff that hasn’t been around long enough for adequate testing.  If you snapped your Achilles tendon in two, what would you want replacing it, material made from spider silk or a lab beaker?  Yeah, me too.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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