Have you ever dreamt of being Spiderman? Now you can, but not in a way that you imagined. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories designed a body armor made of spider silk, and here’s what you need to know about it.

Dragon Silk

Golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila inaurata madagascariensis) female, Madagascar. Charles J. SharpCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

No, it’s not silk harvested from dragons, although getting one sure would be awesome. One of the US Army’s body armor considerations is made from Golden Orb Weaver Spider’s silk. This spider, according to online-field-guide.com, is a “very large orb-weaving spider, characterized by long, slender red legs and a highly elongated, silvery and black abdomen which may have prominent yellow markings.” It creates extremely large yellow webs usually sited up to 6 meters from the ground, sometimes even higher. This spider is native to Madagascar.

Trivia: Only female spiders construct webs; males occupy a female’s web.

According to National Geographic, “Spider silk is one of the most versatile materials on Earth. A protein created by special organs known as spinnerets, spider silk can be used for transportation, shelter, courtship, and all kinds of creative ways to trap prey.”

Body Armor News reported, “Spider silk is made up of a protein-rich liquid, which when dried forms a solid filament that can be shaped to meet various needs. For example, the spider can create an egg sac or weave a web for capturing food. Spider silk is highly flexible, extremely stretchable, surpasses steel in strength, and most importantly, can be formed into a mesh that would stop a bullet. The problem is that until recently, nobody had found a way to make enough spider silk to manufacture and test possible options to find out whether it really can stop bullets.” Until Kraig Biocraft decided to make it possible, that is.

How is it possible?

So the idea is to create armor made of spider silk. To do that, of course, you’ll need spiders—tons of them. If what you’re imagining is that Kraig Biocraft Laboratories collects millions and millions of spiders to farm for their silk, then you’re mistaken. The thing is, spiders are not super friendly to their fellow spiders. Do you know who’s friendly? Silkworms.

The researchers from Utah State University know that, so they integrated spider proteins in the silkworms’ DNA. It’s like morphing the spider silks’ tough webs and the silkworms’ good manners. After eight years of trying, they finally succeeded.

Did it work?

A cape made from Madagascar Golden Orb spider silk was exhibited at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. CmgleeCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The result was silk that could stop a slow-moving .22 caliber round with just four layers of fabric made from it. That’s because dragon silk’s tensile strength is higher than steel. For comparison, a kevlar fabric that’s commonly used for armors needs 33 layers. Bullets can usually penetrate 29 layers of it. Dragon silk is also more flexible at 30 to 40%  flexibility, versus Kevlar’s at 3%.

In 2018, Kraig Biocraft delivered the ballistic shoot pack panels made from Dragon Silk material to the US Army.

Jon Rice, Kraig Biocraft’s COO, stated, “For me, and for the Company, the opportunity to help protect the brave men and women who dedicate themselves to our protection is a great honor.”

While stopping a bullet is an impressive feat for just four layers of fabric, while retaining flexibility, there are other considerations just as important to body armor: Weight and impact absorption.  The protection afforded by body armor comes with a significant offset in added weight to the wearer. A full set of body armor including front and back plates and accessory armor for the neck, groin, and thighs can add up to 40 pounds before a soldier puts on his helmet and starts adding all his other battle-rattle gear to it.  So no matter the stopping ability of spider silk, it has to provide significant weight savings to be worthwhile.   Silk armor would also have to retain its shape and absorb the mass-energy of any bullet that hits it  If the fabric stops the bullet but imparts that mass energy to the body of the wearer, it will break his ribs and generally be so painful that the soldier will still be a casualty anyway needing medical attention. So this silk armor will also have to be able to absorb and disperse the kinetic energy from the bullet or it’s not going to be much good.

Finally, Kevlar and Steel are pretty impervious to sweat and water, silk body armor is organic fabric, how will it perform under freezing conditions?  Will it become brittle?  What happens when the fibers get wet?  Do they contract or stretch?  Will it dissolve if immersed in water? Is it flammable as a fabric?

These are all important considerations as well that silk armor will have to deal with before it becomes a viable alternative to Kevlar, plate steel, and ceramics.

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