The U.S Army recently announced a plan to test genetically engineered spider silk as a possible replacement for Kevlar. But, what is the probability that you will see bulletproof silkies in your duffle anytime soon? Well, higher than ever before – but still years down the road.
Spider silk, otherwise known as that hard-to-see and even hard to get off your head material spiders use to weave their webs, has always held the attention of bioengineers looking for ways to harvest its strength, light weight and flexibility. The problem has always been how? As you can imagine, spiders are difficult to domesticate and, although they can build an intricate web overnight, producing enough silk for a single ballistic panel is both time consuming and costly. While there have been limited applications for bandages and similar small scale products, anything else was simply cost prohibitive.
Enter the silk worm. Kraig Biocraft, the Michigan bioengineering firm with whom the Army has partnered, has successfully created mutated silkworms capable of producing spider silk-like fibers. By injecting silkworms, which produce silk at a far greater rate, with spider DNA, Kraig has developed an end product which they claim is as strong as Kevlar yet much lighter, more comfortable to wear and easier to manipulate. But, just because they have partnered with the Army doesn’t mean your Kevlar is going away anytime soon. The process of moving from a concept to a finished product is likely to take a long test period, followed by necessary redesigns and even more testing.
The initial contract only requires that Kraig provide samples for ballistic testing. If the Army determines the spider silk material is suitable for ballistic testing, something which has not yet been established. Kraig would then need to develop more advanced samples for testing. Only then would the Army or Kraig look for another partner who could potentially produce an end product wearable vest or jacket.
There is also the biggest hurdle any new product can face – cost. At present rates, even if a finished ballistic vest could be produced, it would cost far more than currently-available products. Although mass production would likely reduce this cost, possibly even below current costs for Kevlar, that would require acceptance by a very large share of the market, a market which is unlikely to trust the safety of its officers and service members to an unproven product. While this final spidey gear may be closer than ever, it is still part reality and part science fiction. But, I hope that even if this specific application fails, it will lead to better, lighter ballistic vests being developed by rivals concerned they may need to compete with the potential new kid on the block.
Only time will tell if I get to field test a spider silk ballistic vest but, if I do, I hope I get to climb walls and swing from buildings too. How cool would that be?
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