Down the Silk Road
Warwick Mills developing textile made from caterpillar and spider crossbreed
Genetically engineered caterpillars spinning a new type of fiber that may be the next level in textiles sounds like something out of a science fiction film. But for one local textile company, its simply the next step in opening up the market to a new kind of material.
Warwick Mills in New Ipswich has partnered with Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, a developer of genetically engineered spider silk-based fiber technologies in Lansing, Mich., to manufacture a new kind of silk. The material is produced by caterpillars whose DNA has been crossed with spiders to produce a stronger material. Warwick Mills, which produces advanced technical textiles and protective materials for markets ranging from the boating industry to aerospace and defense, was interested in using the new kind of silk for new textile applications , said Warwick Mills President Charlie Howland in a phone interview Wednesday. He was introduced to the founder of Kraig Biocraft by some investors in the company who live in Keene, he said.
“They knew a little bit about what I do and they suggested we have a conversation,” said Howland in a phone interview on Wednesday. “A new fiber is a huge investment, and it’s quite rare. They do not come along every week. Genetically engineered spider silk or other forms of genetic engineering has been around for a long time and has been approached from a lot of different methods. We’ve been watching it very closely. This is a very sophisticated new set of tools.”
Howland said most of the new fibers that have been introduced to the market are made with a chemical process, not a genetic one. “As good as high-performance synthetic materials are, there are still fiber qualities that have never been duplicated by synthetic processing,” said Howland. “Nylon, for example, was one of the early synthetics, and was developed specifically to have a lower-cost synthetic for silk. And nylon is really good stuff, but it’s not as good as spider silk.”
According to a press release issued by Kraig Biocraft on Oct. 21, Kraig and Warwick recently signed a collaborative development agreement. The two companies will jointly develop textile product based on what Kraig calls “Monster Silk.” Under the agreement, both Kraig and Warwick will jointly own textile-product related intellectual property created during the collaboration.
“This collaborative undertaking represents a huge step forward in our commercialization efforts,” Kim Thompson, Kraig Biocraft CEO and founder, is quoted as saying in the release. “The pairing of Kraig’s spider silk technology with Warwick’s world-class technical textiles applications engineering and weaving abilities is a bold move which we believe will enhance and accelerate the penetration of spider silk into technical textile markets.”
It will be years before Warwick Mills is able to make a commercial venture out of producing Monster Silk, said Howland. Right now, the company is working with laboratory samples to learn how to convert the raw polymer into materials, and to determine the properties of those materials. What Monster Silk will eventually mean for expansions or profits at Warwick Mill, it’s too early to say, said Howland.
“What we’ll be doing is evaluating the fiber and the yarns and figuring out how to convert them to textiles,” Howland explained. “It’s easy to make fiber that’s challenging to work with. If you have long hair, you can think of what it’s like to manage without the right product. Times that by 10 and you might have an idea of what it’s like to manage a fiber that hasn’t been processed correctly.”
One of the potential uses for the fiber is as protection against soft-point ballistics, said Howland. Material used in body armor has to have two things, said Howland — strength and elongation, which is how far it can stretch, and relates to how much energy it can absorb. Nylon was originally used for this purpose, said Howland, but now Kevlar is more popular. Kevlar is three times stronger than nylon, said Howland, but only has one-10th the elasticity.
“When it comes to absorbing energy, you want both [high strength and high elongation],” explained Howland. “None of the current synthetic materials are capable of the high-stretch part of the problem, so you’re limited in the energy you can absorb. If you can make a fiber that has 25 percent elongation, and is as strong as Kevlar, you have a world beater.” Once the mill starts working with the material, they’ll know what the capabilities of Monster Silk is, said Howland, and whether it can produce that winning combination of high strenth and high stretch.
However, body armor isn’t the only potential use of the fiber. Nylon, for example, was first proposed to be used as a material for vehicle tires, but it was years after it was in production as a commercial material before that use became common, Howland pointed out.
“It should remind us that until a material starts to mature, we don’t know what its killer applications are. We can theorize that ballistics are going to be the driving demand for this material, but my guess is that we haven’t even thought of the things this product can enable.”
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.