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.
Creating a flexible web, strong as steel
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 makes more than 100 metric tonnes of silk a year. 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 42 °C to grow the bacteria. The end 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 the spider silk has superior flexibility and shock resistance capabilities.
“It bends without losing strength. So, it could be integrated on parts away from the fuselage that are prone to debris impact or bird strikes. It could help protect space equipment in a similar manner or be applied to defence products.
“The silk also has remarkable antibacterial properties, so we might be able to integrate it inside an aircraft cabin as a more hygienic material.”
Airbus and AMSilk aim to launch a prototype composite in 2019. This means exploring how the silk reacts when it is introduced into the resin matrixes used to manufacture carbon fibre reinforced polymers, before baking it in an autoclave.
Nature’s revolutionary best
The chance to work with an entirely new material opens up a wealth of exciting possibilities, says Konigorski. “The majority of ingredients for the materials we use are well established; the table of elements is finite. Of course, we’ve used natural materials like wood and bamboo for centuries, but we cannot really influence the material.”
Bioengineering is truly revolutionary. AMSilk can recreate the building blocks of spider silk and influence it to create materials that wouldn’t naturally be that way.
“We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface here. Ultimately, this material could enable us to approach design and construction in an entirely new fashion.”
- Detlev Konigorski, Airbus Innovation Manager for Emerging Technologies and Concepts