Spinning a Stronger Future: Arakniteck Creates Synthetic Spider Silk
Imagine body armor stronger than Kevlar and more flexible than nylon;artificial tendons that speed the healing process following injury; stronger parachute cords and climbing ropes; lighter athletic clothing; and betterairbags and stronger tires for your car. That’s only a small list of the vast array of products that could be conceived using spider silk.
At Utah State University, researchers are creating technologies that improve lives, benefit the environmentand build high-value enterprises. Utah Science Technology and Research professor Randy Lewis’ work on the creation of synthetic spider silk is no exception. Six different kinds of silk are produced by orbweb weaving spiders. These fibers have very different
mechanical properties that are so effective they have changed very little over millions of years. “Scientists have known since the late 1800s that farming spiders isn’t possible — spiders tend to eat other spiders within the vicinity,” Lewis says.
Lewis has been working with spider silk proteins for over three decades and has pioneered methods ofmanufacturing artificial spider silk. By transferring silk-producing genes from spiders to silkworms, goats,E. Coli bacteria and alfalfa, Lewis and his team have developed numerous alternative methods for producing apider silk proteins.
In an effort to produce even more strength and flexibility within the synthetic spider silk strands, Lewis now focuses his work on the creation of new methods for spinning and processing these unique proteins.
No public or private university has produced spider silk or silk blends in any quantity and the development of these proprietary methods for producing synthetic spider silk are being added to Lewis’s patent portfolio. Between 1998 and 2010 he filed eight patents covering gene and protein expression of spider silks and glue with the University of Wyoming before coming to USU in 2010.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Lewis’s work is the wide variety of applications available for spider silk;
the unique properties of spider silk alone qualify it for use in multiple markets. So far, a lot of focus has been
within medical applications, creating artificial ligaments and tendons as well as compressive bandages, but there
are other possible outcomes of the research, Lewis says.
Spider silk material may also have relevant applications in thermodynamics because of its unique thermal conductivity attributes. Spider silk’s thermal conductivity is similar to or slightly higher than copper, yet has approximately one-seventh the amount of copper’s mass density. As a result, spider silk thermal links could be highly functional and successful in applications as a thermal management material for the fabrication of flexible thermal links.
As a result of the high commercialization potential of spider silk, Lewis worked closely with USU Commercial Enterprises team to form a spinout company called Araknitek in April 2012. A third party advanced materials company is now testing Araknitek spider silk in composite sports equipment, while the Commercial Enterprises team works to secure sponsored research funding as well as various investment funding.
The office of Commercial Enterprises, a division ofCommercialization and Regional Development, provides
a one-stop-shop for industry partnership and intellectual property development. The Commercial Enterprises
team works closely with academic and industry partners to develop new technologies by “spinning-in” business
innovation opportunities. Commercial Enterprises is committed to protecting USU’s intellectual property and
developing relevant, practical technologies with industry in an effort to appropriately leverage the intellectual,financial and creative assets of USU.
Featured in the January/February 2013 issue of Zions Bank’s Community magazine