Dan Widmaier is not really a fashion guy — “by any stretch of the imagination,” he clarifies — but that hasn’t stopped the chemist from taking on the apparel industry.
His company, Bolt Threads, has engineered a sustainable and versatile material from synthetic spider silk that may one day be used to make iPad covers, car seats, and even name-brand clothing.
According to Widmaier, synthetic spider silk is the fabric of the future. That’s because the silk fibres that insects and spiders produce in the natural world have the elasticity of a rubber band a level of tensile strength (the amount of pressure a material can stand before it breaks) comparable to steel.
These characteristics combined make spider silk two to three times tougher than Kevlar, the material used to make bulletproof vests.
Scientists have tried to recreate this naturally occurring phenomenon in a lab for 30 years, since material made from these fibres could revolutionise clothing design. Imagine if a synthetic version were woven into our clothing — it’s not absurd to think that your Patagonia jacket might protect you from a mass shooting, or that your socks would never tear no matter how many times they cycle through the washing machine.
But the technology that would allow scientists to create synthetic spider silk lagged, and they couldn’t recruit spiders to do the job because spiders are cannibals and would eat each other in captivity.
Widmaier entered the race to find a solution while completing his doctoral studies at UC San Francisco, because he “thought it was interesting,” he says. He has since teamed up with minds from Nike, Avidas Pharmaceuticals, Google, and universities like UC Berkeley, to deliver the world’s first commercially available synthetic spider silk.
Bolt Threads is on pace to produce its first metric ton of the stuff this year.
There are no spiders harmed in the making of Bolt Threads’ silk. Instead, the company combines genetically modified yeast, water, and sugar and turns it to raw silk through a process of fermentation (the same one that converts sugars to alcohol to make beer). The resulting goop has the texture of molasses.
A machine then sucks up the goop and pumps it through tiny holes to create the filaments. Remember the Play Doh Crazy Haircut toy set? The machine works like that, churning out fibres instead of a Play Doh dolls’ hair. The fibres are then knit or woven into fabrics.
The company can also form new varieties of silk by altering the DNA of the genetically modified yeast to tweak the formula. They’ve made 3,000 different silks at small-scale to date.
Considering the infinite uses for such a miracle material, the decision to tackle the apparel industry first might seem surprising. But Widmaier describes the choice as an obvious one from a commercialization perspective.
The US is the world’s biggest market for silk — silk fabric imports average $2 billion a year. But it’s an incredibly flawed material, since it requires special washing and yellows over time. Synthetic spider silk could squash those problems.
“We also would like to fulfil a promise of innovation in a space that hasn’t seen innovation at a regular chip,” Widmaier says. Cue the apparel industry.
In May, Bolt Threads announced a partnership with outdoor clothing maker, Patagonia, to develop the company’s fabric. It’s still unclear which products will use synthetic spider silk — they won’t hit store shelves until 2018, according to Widmaier.
Widameir guesses that the initial consumer goods made from synthetic spider silk will be heavily marketed as such. The material is innovative, it’s sexy. Eventually, though, he hopes to see synthetic spider silk become as ubiquitous as nylon.
“There’s something about ‘new’ that consumers want, which is why they’re willing to buy that differentially from something else,” Widameir says. “Now, in the long run, if you really want to change the world and build a more sustainable supply chain in consumer products … eventually, [synthetic spider silk] becomes the expected baseline.”
Widameir hints that Bolt Threads may launch their own apparel products before Patagonia’s come out. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for a Spider-Man suit.