A silky spin on protective armor

May 13, 2013 by Angela Herring
Credit: Thinkstock

At seven times the toughness of Kevlar, a silk produced by the Caerostris darwini spider of Madagascar is more robust than any other material—synthetic or natural. Most spider silks are about two times tougher than Kevlar, and have long been considered an intriguing alternative for bulletproof vests and other protective gear. There's only one problem: producing spider silk on demand is a tricky task.

Chemical Robert Jones, Thomas Khoury, and Richard Salvucci spent the last semester of their Northeastern undergraduate careers developing a set of solutions that could make C. darwini a viable option for industrial-scale manufacturing. The team's project won first place at the New England Bioengineering Conference, where they competed with hundreds of students from dozens of schools including Cornell and Boston University.

The capstone students collaborated with Tufts University professor and spider silk expert David Kaplan to engineer a theoretical method for producing the silk in at currently unmatched concentrations. Previously, researchers have managed to force bacteria like Escherichia coli to produce silk, but only in small amounts.

The silk is large and highly repetitive and cells have trouble replicating protein from it, said Jones, who focused primarily on the biological side of the project. So the young researchers decided to build their model using a genetically modified E. coli strain that more effectively deals with the repetitive .

They incorporated other mutations into their hypothetical E. coli strain to increase its efficiency and protein productivity. But the proteins produced by these bacteria do not represent the perfectly spun fibers of spider silk we're used to seeing, which presented another barrier to industrial-scale production. Salvucci tackled this part of the project, designing a system to spin the protein into fibers and collect them on giant spools like any fiber used in the textile industry.

Richard Salvucci, Robert Jones, and Thomas Khoury won first prize at the New England Bioengineering Conference for their solution to industrial-scale spider silk production. Credit: Brooks Canaday

The trio of students chose to form their fibers using microfluidics; the fibers were only 40 microns thick (less than half the thickness of a human hair). "We're mimicking the biological events that actually occur within the spider," said Salvucci.

The so-called Exo-Spinner Collection system incorporates 10 sets of 15,000 microfluidic devices, enabling it to produce and collect 150,000 fibers at a time. At this rate, the students estimate they could make 100 kilograms of spider silk per day, enough to produce 50 bulletproof vests.

With his sights set on business school, Khoury focused on the economics of the project. Based on a series of assumptions drawn from the current market, Khoury forecasted a demand of 1.5 billion vests per year and believes they could break in at one percent of the market. While the spider silk vest would be significantly more costly than the standard option, the students say it would also be lighter, more comfortable, and more versatile.

They also believe that industrial-scale production could revolutionize the textile industry as a whole, providing a novel material for products ranging from seatbelts to sailboats. "You're only limited by your imagination," said Khoury.

Explore further: Chemists characterize 3-D macroporous hydrogels

Related Stories

Silkworms spinning spider webs

Jan 03, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- A spiders silk is strong and more elastic and has a large range of possible medical applications. However, spiders have a history of being territorial and prone to cannibalism, so the idea ...

Most stretchable spider silk reported

Feb 08, 2012

The egg sac silk of the cocoon stalk of the cave spider Meta menardi is the most stretchable egg sac silk yet tested, according to a study published Feb. 8 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

Hagfish slime as a model for tomorrow's natural fabrics

Nov 28, 2012

Nylon, Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics: Step aside. If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong ...

Recommended for you

Chemists characterize 3-D macroporous hydrogels

1 hour ago

Carnegie Mellon University chemists have developed two novel methods to characterize 3-dimensional macroporous hydrogels—materials that hold great promise for developing "smart" responsive materials that ...

Substrates change nanoparticle reactivity

6 hours ago

(Phys.org)—Nanoscale materials tend to behave differently than their bulk counterparts. While there are many theories as to why this happens, technological advances in scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) ...

Reviving cottonseed meals adhesives potential

9 hours ago

Cottonseed meal—the leftovers after lint and oil are extracted from cottonseed—is typically fed to ruminant livestock, such as cows, or used as fertilizer. But Agricultural Research Service scientists ...

New concrete composite can heal itself

9 hours ago

In the human body, small wounds are easily treated by the body itself, requiring no further care. For bigger wounds to be healed, the body may need outside assistance. Concrete is like a living body, in that ...

Actuators that mimic ice plants

10 hours ago

Engineers developing moveable robot components may soon take advantage of a trick plants use. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam and Harvard University in Cambridge ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 13, 2013
1.5 billion vests a year??

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.