Science & Technology

Spider Camo? USU Awarded Army Funds to Produce Heat-Resistant Fabric

USU USTAR Biology professor Randy Lewis, top right, assists doctoral candidate Cameron Copeland, right, and undergrad researcher Brianne Bell in spinning synthetic spider silk. Lewis received a new grant to develop protective military clothing.

Improvised explosive devices, known as “IEDs,” are the bane of recent military conflicts. The homemade bombs and similar weapons have killed or injured thousands of U.S. troops.

“With these types of weapons, you have a powerful concussion, but they also generate a tremendous amount of heat,” says Randy Lewis, USTAR Biology professor at Utah State University. “In these situations, soldiers’ nylon clothing melts and sticks to the skin, which causes even greater injury.”

A promising solution is to replace troops’ conventional nylon gear with clothing made from synthetic spider silk fabric. To this end, the U.S. Army has awarded Lewis and Salt Lake City-based Technology Holding LLC a $1 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contract to continue research and development of fabric manufactured from silk produced at USU.

“Spider silk is one of the strongest materials known to man,” Lewis says. “Yet it’s lightweight, elastic and it doesn’t melt. At high temperatures, it simply chars and breaks down.”

Because the fabric is lighter, stronger and stretches more than nylon, it takes less fabric to produce the finished product.

“This is a real advantage and will make a huge difference for each person who wears clothing made from the fabric,” he says. “Our troops carry a lot of heavy gear in the field. One pound on your foot equals five pounds on your back, so imagine how that affects someone – especially a person covering difficult terrain in harsh conditions.”

Lewis has pioneered efforts to produce synthetic spider silk from milk from transgenic goats, as well as from transgenic bacteria, alfalfa and silkworms. A limiting factor to unleashing widespread manufacturing of products made from the biomaterial has been mastering the means of producing large-scale quantities. This challenge has been partially addressed by the lab’s newly built USTAR Bioproduct Scale Up Facility early this year on the university’s Innovation Campus.

“We’re making strides and our partnership with Technology Holding will help us move forward,” Lewis says. “We know how to create transgenic E. coli to produce the silk and they’re good at producing large quantities.”

The contract funds two years of research, during which the USU team will prepare spider silk and fabric swatches for testing by the Army. Lewis is hopeful the work will progress to a Phase III contract.

“This partnership enables us to continue to hone our production of spider silk, which opens opportunities for development of even more applications,” he says.

Related Links

“USU Scientists Mark ‘Watershed’ Breakthrough in Spider Silk Production,” Utah State Today 
“USU-led Team Awarded $1.9M DOE Energy Efficient Transport Tech Grant,” Utah State Today 
USU Department of Biology 
USU College of Science 

Contact: Randy Lewis, 435-797-9291, randy.lewis@usu.edu

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

A U.S. soldier carries heavy gear in Iraq. Research at USU could provide lighter weight clothing made from melt-resistant synthetic spider silk to better protect troops from enemy fire. Courtesy U.S. Army.

TOPICS

Grants 185stories USTAR 64stories Spider Silk 18stories

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