Incredibly strong, lightweight and flexible, spider silk is a true natural wonder – that can now be recreated for industrial use. Together with leading biotech company AMSilk, Airbus aims to use artificial spider silk to create an entirely new generation of composite material that could revolutionise aerospace design.
Spider silk is one of nature’s most astonishing materials. Stronger than steel, tougher than Kevlar and incredibly lightweight, a spider web made from fibres as thick as a pencil would be able to catch a fully loaded A350 – around 200 tonnes. For decades, scientists have sought to recreate spider silk’s astonishing properties for industrial use. But those efforts have been unsuccessful – until now.
AMSilk, a leading biotech company located near Munich, is the world’s first industrial supplier of what it calls synthetic silk biopolymers – artificial spider silk. The company already uses this high-performance, fully biodegradable material for medical devices and cosmetics. As a coating for implants it is more easily accepted by the human body, while silk additives give beauty products their glow. In 2016, it even made a prototype shoe with a major sports clothing label. But now, together with Airbus, it wants to transfer its ground-breaking technology to aerospace.
To do this, Airbus and AMSilk will work together on creating an entirely new area of composite materials. Leading the cooperation for Airbus is Detlev Konigorski, Innovation Manager for Emerging Technologies and Concepts. “Currently, AMSilk produces silk on a metric tonnes scale per annum. But this isn’t yet aerospace-ready. You could compare it to steel: what you use to make cars isn’t the same as what you use to make battleships. We’re looking for the battleship steel version of spider silk.”
After first decoding spider DNA, AMSilk realised that by taking the animal’s specific genetic code for producing silk and introducing it to bacteria, they could artificially reproduce an identical material. The company now carries out this process in 60,000 litre tanks four storeys high, which are filled with water and heated to 37 °C to grow the bacteria. The result is a powder that can be formed into a fibre, film or gel.
A faster, safer and healthier flight?
So, how can Airbus use the artificial spider silk? “Quite simply, we need to experiment,” says Konigorski.
Greater use of carbon fibre composites has helped reduce aircraft weight, and therefore fuel consumption, in recent years. But AMSilk’s Biosteel® fibers have superior flexibility and shock resistance capabilities.