Kevlar proved to be a huge advance in body armor technology when it first went into widespread use decades ago. It was relatively lightweight compared to the previous types of body armor and was credited with saving many lives in Afghanistan and both Gulf Wars. As is the way of the world, the next generation of body armor is being developed and it may surprise you to learn that it might be made of silk. That is right, and this is not a misprint.
Genetically Modified Spider Silk
A Michigan-based biocraft firm, Kraig Biocraft, has been doing some amazing things with a genetically modified type of spider silk. It has been used successfully for surgeries and other types of medical uses for several years because of its incredible strength. It will also naturally degrade over time and is much thinner than typical stitches so it can be used in sensitive areas like around the eyes and brain.
The military was so intrigued by the prospect that it awarded Kraig Biocraft a grant to explore using the silk in making a new type of body armor. They gave the company a $100,000 grant to start with and, if the results proved worthy, they were promised another one million dollars in the not-too-distant future. The new body armor will be made of an extremely tight weave of the spider silk.
There’s Not Enough Silk to Go Around
One of the problems that Kraig Biocraft had was getting enough silk. Spider farms are not very self-sustaining because spiders are both territorial and like to eat each other. That presented a big problem. The solution was to genetically modify spider silk genes into much more peaceful and coexistent silkworms. The thread turned out to be just as strong as actual spider silk and was produced in much higher quantities. Genetic modification can be a little scary, but in this instance it worked remarkably well.
How Does Spider Silk Work As Body Armor?
The strength of body armor is measured by the Army in what are known as gigapascals. Currently, Kevlar is rated at having 3 gigapascals of stopping power. The genetically modified spider silk is not quite as strong and has a rating of 2 gigapascals. However, there is a huge tradeoff by using the spider silk and that is mobility – which is always an important player on the battlefield. Kevlar allows for almost no flexibility, whereas the woven spider silk is projected to allow up to 40% freedom of movement.
There appears to be some real belief that this new body armor could very well become a reality if Kraig Biocraft can continue to find ways to produce the silk in high enough quantities. So those of you that are into comic book heroes and were hoping they would someday show up on the battlefield; be prepared because in the not-too-distant future Spiderman may actually be on the front lines.
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