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Buh-bye fast fashion, hello biomaterials
From cars to clothing, the synthetic silk movement aims to provide a sustainable replacement for petroleum-based materials across a range of businesses.
Believe it or not, humans have been trying to untangle the secrets of spider silk for at least hundreds of years.
The material has become almost legendary—it’s stronger and better at retaining heat than the silkworm silk we currently use to make fabrics, and certain spider silks boast strength rivaling that of some steels. But spiders aren’t very cooperative; they’re almost impossible to corral for silk-gathering purposes, and many species have an unfortunate habit of going cannibal in captivity. So, while over the years some spider wranglers have managed to collect enough fiber to make small numbers of garments, no one has ever figured out how to produce large quantities of spider silk. (Maybe befitting its rarity and allure, the best known and largest piece of real spider-silk fabric in the world is a priceless, shimmering golden cape made in 2009, a one-of-a-kind art piece that required more than a million spiders to produce.)
Now, the modern quest to tame the wonders of spider silk continues in laboratories across the world, as scientists and startups race to create synthetic materials that mimic its properties.
Part of a larger, growing biomaterials industry, producers of synthetic silks hope they can be a sustainable replacement for petroleum-based materials across a range of businesses, from cars to clothing. Recently, The North Face Japan, in partnership with Japanese biomaterials manufacturer Spiber, passed the latest milestone in the spider-silk marathon: In December, the companies sold 50 parkas mostly made from synthetic, spider-inspired silk. Dubbed the “Moon Parka,” the name and run-size are a nod to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, writes Daniel Meyer, Spiber’s head of global corporate planning, in an email interview.
The Moon Parka first debuted as a prototype in 2015, and since then Spiber has been refining its materials, in the process announcing other high-profile partnerships, like a “kinetic seat” project with Lexus, and releasing another Goldwin collaboration, the “Planetary Equilibrium Tee,” in June.
The company still faces stiff competition: Bolt Threads in California, probably Spiber’s closest competitor, has also been busy, releasing a spider-inspired lab-silk tie, and partnering with companies like Patagonia and Stella McCartney. AMSilk, a German synthetic-silk contender, is testing silk-coated breast implants and has teamed up with Adidas on a sneaker project.
Spiber now makes several materials, but refers to them under the umbrella term “Brewed Protein,” which the company has trademarked. No actual spiders are used to make these materials; instead the process employs even tinier creatures—microorganisms like e.Coli bacteria, which Spiber genetically modifies to produce proteins resembling those in spider silk. Grown in large industrial tanks, these microorganisms eat sugar and “proteins are produced at high efficiency via fermentation,” writes Meyer, after which the desired material is separated out and dried into a powder that can be processed into fibers and other forms.
In industries like fashion, these kinds of “structural protein materials” could be an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based or animal-derived fibers, explains Meyer. Fibers made with fossil-fuels (like acrylic and nylon) are incredibly useful, cheap, and durable. But their production is a major contributor to climate change, and the source of a worsening pollution crisis, as tiny strands and particles make their way into waterways, disrupting delicate ecosystems and even tainting human food supplies. Even “fast fashion” retailers like Zara and H&M, whose basic business model is a notable driver of the industry’s environmental woes, have begun to at least pay lip service to sustainability concerns. And though corporate sustainability promises should really always be viewed with some skepticism, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which—due to some combination of regulation and consumer demand—manufacturers increasingly turn to biomaterials, like synthetic silks, to mitigate their negative environmental impact.
Beyond just a replacement for the polyester in your t-shirt, though, synthetic, spider-inspired silks can be made into a variety of films, foams, and structural materials that can lead to other environmentally beneficial outcomes, says Meyer, “such as lighter cars that utilize less fuel.”
More than a decade ago when the company first launched, “people just laughed at us and said ‘who are these kids?’ ” Kenji Higashi, Spiber’s CEO, told The Washington Post in 2016. Since then, Spiber has come a long way: Last year, the company raised $44 million to build a new plant in Rayong, Thailand, which will be, according to Spiber, “the world’s largest structural protein fermentation facility.” Slated to go online in 2021, it’s being designed to produce several hundred tons of Brewed Protein polymer annually.
The last 20 years or so have seen a boom in biomaterials, and in particular, a new, intense focus on spider-like silks and their potential in industry. Marie Vinter, a designer who teaches at the Estonian Academy of Arts and researches sustainable materials at Tallinn University says, “it’s been amazing to see the growth and the investments that are being made into startups such as Bolt or Spiber.” Rising with a larger wave of venture investment in Japanese startups, Spiber was funded early on by investors like private equity firm Jafco Co and since then, the biomaterials manufacturer has raised capital from companies like Toyota Boshoku Corporation and public-private partnership Cool Japan Fund. Attesting to the draw of creating what could be next-generation, environmentally friendly textiles, Bolt Threads, too, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors like Foundation Capital and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
Still, researchers are just beginning to crack the mysteries of spider silk, says Darshil Shah, a materials scientist at Cambridge University, in a Skype call. In 2017, Shah worked with a team of architects and chemists to produce a different kind of spider silk-inspired material. But, says Shah, it’s important to note that neither the fibers his team created, nor those protein-based materials created by microorganisms in tanks, are exact chemical replicas of the silks spiders spin. That means some of spider silk’s essential qualities—like being biodegradable in nature—can’t necessarily be taken for granted, even if only plant-based input materials are used in manufacturing.
Of course, Spiber’s materials are fairly new, and "the level of biodegradability can vary from product to product,” writes Meyer. Some, for example, might need to be broken down at some kind of specialized disposal facility. This too, makes some sense when you consider the scope of Spiber’s ambitions, and speaks to why it attracts investment from such a wide range of industries: Natural spider silk may be incredibly strong, but it’s not built to last. While it might eventually be nice to have a jacket that could be thrown into your home compost pile or have a doctor administer lab-silk stitches that could dissolve as a wound healed, you wouldn’t necessarily want car parts made from synthetic silk to fall apart in the same way. Which is why Spiber and others in the biomaterials game work hard to control the properties of the materials they produce.
These careful calculations and tradeoffs show how difficult it is to create truly sustainable materials. “In general, when we talk about new fibers and sustainability, we can’t just substitute one material [for] another material,” says Vinter, “we still create problems. We just really have to do something with our consumption.” And scalability and cost have always been the major barriers to bringing new, sustainable materials to the public in a way that would meaningfully displace plastics or other nonrenewable resources. Right now, the supply of synthetic silks are “severely limited,” writes Meyer, and so, “for most consumers, the benefits and potential of biomaterials may still seem uncertain.” But the Moon Parka might just be the tip of the iceberg: Shah, who is currently researching how to turn the fibers his team created into yarns for making fabrics, says he is looking forward to seeing some more “technical applications” explored. He imagines synthetic silk construction materials that are stronger and lighter than steel.
According to Vinter, the Moon Parka, essentially an extremely expensive jacket sold to a few rich people, isn’t going to change the world. But it is a great way to “use material as a medium” to talk about climate and pollution, she says, and it’s “one step closer to better futures.” Ultimately, though, “it's not up to the material’s actual potential.” When asked what would live up to that potential, Vinter laughs. “I don’t know,” she muses, “perhaps a stairway to heaven.”