Army Wants Spider-Silk Infused Body Armor

silkworms

The wards over in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the military some major valuable lessons on the strategic front including how to deal with insurgency, dismounted operations on a large scale across rugged terrain, and a myriad of other lessons. To each of those is a tactical component, with military across the world recognizing the value of body armor to save military lives and also take them by loading down combatants with too much gear that slows them down and robs them of critical mobility.

It cannot be said that the US Army has been sitting on its heels. In less than 10 years, multiple types of body armor have been tested, approved, and fielded with increasing modularity to help local commanders make tactical level decisions. While these are great steps, the modular systems have still had to contend with the base weight of SAPI, ESAPI, and kevlar panels, which are not light in and of themselves.

To assist with reducing weight and increasing mobility, the Army has conferred at $100,000 grant to Kraig Biocraft, which has been working to graft genes from spiders to silkworms, increasing the strength and easy of production of spider silk. The resulting composite silk has been trade-named Dragon Silk, which is used today in surgeries as sutures.

Per Popular Mechanics:

The Army’s Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment (PM-SPIE) office is giving Kraig Biocraft a $100,000 grant to test their Dragon Silk as a form of body armor. The company will produce a series of ballistic “shoot packs” with different thread counts, thicknesses, and construction techniques to see how the Dragon Silk performs. If it meets expectations, the Army is prepared to increase the grant to $1 million.

Dragon Silk’s primary advantage over traditional Kevlar is its flexibility. Kevlar is slightly more durable than Dragon Silk, with a strength of 3 gigapascals (GPa) compared to Dragon Silk’s strength of 2 GPa. However, Kevlar only has an elasticity of 3 percent, meaning it’s almost completely inflexible. Dragon Silk has an elasticity of 30 to 40 percent, which offsets the slightly reduced strength.

The timeline for the grant was not easily accessible, but the prospect of developing a highly flexible ballistic impact protection material is exciting for US war-fighters.



Nathan S.

One of TFB’s resident Jarheads, Nathan now works within the firearms industry. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, NFA, gunsmithing, MSR’s, & high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries working with US DoD & foreign MoDs.

Nathan can be reached at Nathan.S@TheFirearmBlog.com

The above post is my opinion and does not reflect the views of any company or organization.


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  • GhostTrain81

    There must be a vetting process to ensure that the spiders are American.

    • gordon

      Free range spiders and worms would be a must too.

      • Dan

        Nope too much GMO. I want 100% certified organic silk in my body armor

    • Spencerhut

      They are using silk worms, not spiders. Comprehend much of what you read?

      • gordon

        The line “has been working to graft genes from spiders to silkworms, increasing the strength and easy of production of spider silk.” Can be a bit misleading. It could be interpreted as both spider and silk worms are having their genes grafted. Plus spiders are involved even if only for providing genes.

      • Badwolf

        they are using both spiders and silk worms.

      • Sunshine_Shooter

        You are replying to sarcasm. Do you comprehend much of what you read? Learn some context.

    • Anomanom

      But silkworms are Chinese….

      • GaryOlson

        Snag the genetic blueprints, give them to Monsanto, they’ll put them in soybeans, and we’ll have good ol’ boys growing silkworms in no time. Everyone will be able to grow their own armor.

        • Sunshine_Shooter

          Great, worms growing out of bean plants. My nightmares are completely fueled up. Thanks.

  • Sianmink

    So..
    Who’s going to point out the total lack of spiders in the title image?

    • ostiariusalpha

      Silk worms produce more silk than any spider. There is a good deal of research into genetically modifying them to secrete threads made of the stronger spider silk proteins instead of their normal silk.

    • RocketScientist

      Probably no-one, because they read the article and saw that it is about using genetically modified silkworms to grow spider silk.

      “Kraig Biocraft, which has been working to graft genes from spiders to silkworms, increasing the strength and easy of production of spider silk.”

      • TheNotoriousIUD

        Read the headline, genius.

        The part about spider silk.

        • RocketScientist

          SPIDER SILK MADE BY AND HARVESTED FROM SILK WORMS.

          • TheNotoriousIUD

            Sounds like the headline needs to be modified.

          • Twilight sparkle

            The title seems fine to me. The article is more about spider silk than where the spider silk is coming from

  • Guygasm

    So we are calling Middle Eastern countries our “wards” now huh? Fitting.

    • gordon

      “Ward” can mean a few different things. I posit that at least one of them seems appropriate.

    • gordon

      “Ward” has a few different meanings. At least one of them seems appropriate.

  • Badwolf

    as mentioned in the article, spider silk is strong, but not as strong as kevlar. But the lower strength is offset by higher elongation. and you need both strength and elongation to absorb the impact of flying insects or a bullet. spider web also high level of resistance to shear stress and lower density compared to kevlar.

    • Brett

      It stands to reason that the silk will not replace Kevlar, but could be used in armor segments that require protection but demand flexibility. Limbs and groin protection come to mind.

      • Badwolf

        I don’t know if they will. But it could. As said, strength and elongation are both needed to absorb impact. Kevlar has higher strength but lower elongation relative to spider web. Spider web has better balance of both. The real problem is how to make large quantities of it cheaply. You cannot milk a spider fast enough, it’s just not commercially feasible. So they tried gm goats that make milk with spider web proteins. And now they tried gm silk worms.

        • Brett

          Not to mention cost of R&D and manufacture of the new fabric. Not that this isn’t rustling the jimmies and pushing the dillons of the sci-fi/fantasy nerd in me.

  • Vitsaus

    Silk comes from the butts of chinese worms!

  • TheNotoriousIUD

    Hasnt DARPA been toying with this for decades?

    • Renegade

      That’s what I thought. I swear I’ve read this exact information before, Dragon Silk and everything.

      • MrDakka

        Most of the older efforts at using spider silk involved using the spiders themselves or other animals like goats to spin the silk. AFAIK those efforts didn’t pan out so I’m guessing they switched their efforts to transgenic silkworms

        • nadnerbus

          Is that where the goats-in-trees thing came from? Spinning their webs…

  • thedonn007

    Bypass the spider/dragon/silkworms and use Graphene.

    • MrDakka

      The problem with all these types of nanomaterials is that there is yet to be an affordable industrial scale process for bulk nanomaterial production. Sure you can add carbon nanotubes, buckyballs, graphene, carbene, iron whiskers, diamond fibers, etc. in laboratory quantities, but true macroscale production? That’ll take time as the industry figures out how to optimize the processes.

      Not saying its never going to happen, but that it’ll take some time.

  • retfed

    Back in the black-powder days, it was axiomatic that silk was bulletproof. There are several cases of people who were shot and killed by a bullet (I like the old term “ball” in this context) that impacted on a silk shirt, tie, or neckerchief. When the cloth was pulled out of the wound, the bullet was sitting on top of it. It hadn’t penetrated the silk; unfortunately, the silk wasn’t stiff, and the bullet just pushed the silk into the body ahead of it. In other words, it penetrated the body, but not the silk.
    That was with round-nosed lead bullets propelled by black powder. Maybe if we breed super-strong silkworms we can get silk that will stop jacketed spitzer bullets propelled by smokeless powder? I can dream, can’t I?

    • MrDakka

      The nature of the defeat mechanism of fabric body armor prevents stopping spitzer bullets without killing the protected target, hence the dual armor types: hard plate and fabric.

    • Marcus D.

      The Chinese made armor parts out of multiple layers of silk, much as Europeans used thick quilted wool or flaxen shirts under chain mail. Chain and a gambeson is stronger and more protective than either element alone, although thickly padded gambesons were the poor man’s armor, and were known to stop arrows. I suspect the effectiveness is the elasticity; a hard surface is easier to penetrate than one which gives and decelerates the projectile or bladed instrument.

    • iksnilol

      It still helped people survive because the wound remained relatively clean.

      • I would have thought it lead to infection if all the fibers couldn’t be removed…

        • iksnilol

          Well, it would if it was an inferior material (IE cotton or wool).

          Because the silk stays together, it plugs the hole (helps against bleeding obviously), whilst staying together makes it avoid creating debris which would lead to infection. And it kept the bullet separate for easy removal (which was helpful because in the olden days they were fans of removing the bullet at the cost of your life).

  • Kelly Jackson

    They also want AR15s made from valyrian steel

  • garymac66

    I think this is potentially a very bad thing. Next thing you know some guy will get bitten and will end up swinging around the city as some kind of genetically enhanced silkworm spider guy. Just saying.

    • HammaHamma

      What’s he gonna do? Wrap himself into a cocoon when evildoers and supervillains attack the city?

      • DChrls

        He’ll worm dance all over the city fighting crime!!! It’ll be terrifying…

      • garymac66

        The law of unintended consequences is all I’m saying. 😉

    • nadnerbus

      Spiderworm just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  • Michael Brockway

    I swear we had genetically engineered goats pumping out spider silk proteins in their milk 10 years ago. Who forgot to feed the dang spider goats?

    • Ryfyle

      The old timers thought we would have consumer jet packs, which we do. They did not see the Transgenic Spider Goats.

    • DGlynnC

      The spider goat project never amounted to anything marketable. The goats produced spider silk protein but it still had to be spun into fiber – which proved problematic. The transgenic silkworm solves the problem. Dragon Silk fibers can be produced at almost the same cost as normal silk. Contrary to what the article says, Dragon Silk is NOT currently used for sutures (or any other medical application). That is the hope of the people at Kraig Labs. Kraig says on their website that they are in the process of setting up production in the USA (in Indiana) with the intent to set up a second production facility here within the next 12 mos. they also cut a deal with Vietnam to produce there, and are looking at a second foreign location.

  • Sgt. Stedenko

    Spider silk has been a wet dream of the engineering world for decades.

    • Badwolf

      And how to produce it in commercially viable quantity is a wet dream of molecular biologists.

      • Swarf

        Wet dream… spider silk…

        I think you guys are on to something here.