After decades of trying, scientists may have finally found a way to make body armor out of spider silk.
Aside from being very cool, this would mean ultra-lightweight, super-strong, flexible body armor that would provide highly improved protection for America's soldiers and law enforcement officers.
Right now, U.S. soldiers must wear very heavy, inflexible and cumbersome body armor for protection. Typically it is hard body armor, a ballistic vest with at least two large, hard ceramic plates, designed to protect the upper body from shrapnel and bullets.
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Hard armor basically works by resisting the force of the bullet or shrapnel with the same degree of force. But the more protection hard armor provides, the heavier and more ungainly it becomes. The lowest level protects only against small-caliber projectiles that have less force on impact. Hard-armor design often involves the ability to scale up protection, so there are pockets into which additional plates can be inserted.
Although protection is important -- reports indicate that the risk of death from gunshot is 14 times higher for law enforcement officers who don't wear armor -- users often find themselves weighing the risk of being shot with the reduction in speed, mobility and agility that hard armor's weight and unwieldiness can cause.
While soldiers wear hard armor on a daily basis, law enforcement officers in reduced risk situations often prefer the flexibility and lighter weight of soft body armor, which works by spreading out the blunt trauma so that the force is not received in one focused spot. Soft armor often slows down bullet or shrapnel through layers or interwoven fabrics that act like nets or spider webs.
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Developing lightweight, flexible soft body armor with the higher degree of protection of hard body armor has so far been the impossible dream.
DuPont's Kevlar fiber, the soft armor fiber widely adopted by law enforcement, is often described as five times stronger than steel -- but spider silk continues to outperform its artificial counterparts, so the pursuit of Spider-Man style armor has been underway for decades.
Strand-for-strand, researchers in the field know, the drag line of an orb-weaving spider, while weighing far less, can be three times more flexible than Kevlar and five times stronger than steel.
Contrary to its size and weight, spider silk is naturally capable of absorbing a huge amount of energy.
Last year, a team at the Heidelberg Institute For Theoretical Studies in Germany studied the building blocks to the mystery behind what makes spider silk so naturally strong.
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There are two key components to spider silk fiber: the soft goo gel that is manufactured in the abdomen and the strong solid thread that it has become when it leaves the body.
This team's findings, published in Biophysical Journal, suggest that the same components that give the soft goo silk elasticity lead to the stress distribution handy for body armor.
While capitalizing on the natural attributes of spider dragline seems like a no-brainer, the coveted prize of creating spider silk body armor has not been without serious obstacles.
Among the challenges: cracking the genome profile of ideal spider silk; finding a way to synthesize the silk-making protein; and devising a method to mass-manufacture the protein in the volumes necessary.
For a long time, the focus has been on the silk of one of the world's most lethal spiders -- the black widow, the drag line of which could provide material stronger than Kevlar or steel, and in a far lighter weight and more flexible way.
But farming the spiders has not been an option, as spiders do not play nicely with each other -- they tend to turn into a fight club and fail to produce the mass volumes necessary.