U.S. Army gets super strong spider silk bulletproof panels

August 26, 2018 |

The U.S. military is getting as close to becoming Superman and Spider-Man superheroes as humanly possible with their new ballistic shootpack panels made from Kraig Biocraft Laboratories’ proprietary Dragon Silk material. The spider silk material is not only stronger than steel, it’s stronger than Kevlar, the usual bulletproof material used for military and police personnel.

Like something out of a Spider-Man movie, Kraig used genetic engineering to get silkworms to produce spider silk and in a Superman fashion, created fabric from it that can stop bullets – pretty handy for the U.S. Army.

In Michigan, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc., developer of spider silk-based fibers, took a huge step forward in its spider silk commercialization and delivered ballistic shootpack panels to the U.S. Army made from Kraig’s proprietary Dragon Silk material. The panels will be evaluated for effectiveness in stopping bullets, in an effort to provide Warfighters with a lighter and more comfortable alternative to conventional protective apparel, which is pretty darn exciting for all military personnel who hate those heavy, thick bulletproof pads.

What exactly is Dragon Silk?

So how can that soft, silky spider silk really be stronger than steel and Kevlar? It’s all about Kraig’s special genetically modified dragon silk, friends. You see, spiders aren’t friends…they eat each other with their natural cannibalistic tendencies. So if you create a spider farm to make spider silk, well, it’s problematic when they start eating each other and getting all territorial.

Like something straight from a Spiderman movie, Kraig Biocraft Labs found a way to use some genetic modification magic. They took the silk proteins from the spiders, introduced the genetic material into the friendly, kumbaya, super-efficient silkworms which now spin out the spider silk, thus being able to finally make lots of wonderful spider silk, without the spider-eat-spider issue.

By utilizing spider silk gene sequences, Kraig first created Monster Silk which was at the time touted as the strongest, most lightweight and flexible fiber. That is, until Dragon Silk came along as a breakthrough line of transgenic silkworms which proved to not only to be stronger and more elastic than commercial grade silkworm silk, but stronger and more elastic than certain spider dragline silks.

The best part? This super strong stuff can be produced at large quantities with these specially engineered silkworms. Since they were developed to be a direct drop-in replacement into the traditional silk production infrastructure, it bodes well for the company since the traditional silk market produces more than 150,000 metric tons of silk per year. According to Kraig’s press release, this approach of adapting the existing production infrastructure is the key differentiator between Kraig and others working to produce spider silk materials.

Competitor California-based Bolt Threads uses a different approach by not using spiders or silkworms at all and instead uses primarily sugar, water, salts and yeast. “We are still refining our recipe, but that’s the gist of it,” according to Bolt’s website. Basically, their yeast produces silk protein in a liquid form during fermentation and after some processing, the liquid silk protein can be turned into fiber through wet-spinning, which is the same way fibers like acrylic and rayon are made.

As reported in NUU in July, Bolt Threads has also reached commercial scale with their technology, having partnered with Best Made and Chris Reeve Knives to launch a biobased knife using Bolt’s Microsilk fiber.

Why is spider silk better than traditional silk…or even Kevlar and steel?

Not only is spider silk stronger than Kevlar and steel, spider silk is extremely flexible, making it more comfortable and providing higher mobility and movement for the wearer. That’s a very different comfort level compared to traditional synthetic materials such as Ultra High Molecular Weight (UHMW) polymers or aramids, which are super stiff.

Spider silk is also good for the environment – it’s biocompatible, making it ideal for skin contact applications, and biodegradable, reducing the environmental burden of the current synthetic materials. Win-win in the books.

“After years of research and investment, developing this ground-breaking technology, we are very excited to now see it in the hands of the U.S. Army,” stated Jon Rice, COO.  “For me, personally, and for the Company, the opportunity to help protect the brave men and women whom dedicate themselves to our protection is a great honor.”

Kraig Biocraft continues to “develop the next generation of high performance recombinant spider silk materials under the exercised contract option period authorized in 2017 and is currently in the process of opening a production facility in Vietnam to significantly expand its production capacity of Dragon Silk and its many other recombinant spider silk offerings,” according to their press release.

The future

The U.S. Army isn’t the only place we’ll be seeing Kraig’s Superman strength spider silk as we anticipate this first step into commercialization as just the beginning.

And Monster Silk and Dragon Silk aren’t even the end of the web for Kraig scientists who also have weaved four new distinct transgenic lines, which use the most complex genetic designs in the company’s history. On top of the new lines, the lab also produced a new genetic insertion design for more effective gene splicing, according to their website. “This new design incorporated the properties of both Dragon Silk and Monster Silk into a single construction. This experiment to merge Monster Silk’s elasticity focus with the strength focus of Dragon Silk into a single package was the logical next step for the technology.” Where this will lead to next, we shall see.

What we do know is the traditional silk market is estimated at approximately $3 to $5 billion per year at the raw fiber level and according to Kraig’s website, they say their Monster Silk alone is well positioned to penetrate that market, as well as the larger technical textile market which is estimated at approximately $130 billion. Those are numbers to attract anyone’s attention, superhero or not.

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