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Synthetic spider silk could help solve the world’s plastic pollution problems

There’s no doubt that Earth has a plastic problem. The total amount of plastic thrown away each year is enough to circle the Earth four times. Americans alone throw away some 35 billion plastic bottles every 12 months. Could spider silk help?

That might sound like a non-sequitur, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. In Finland, researchers from Aalto University and the VTT Technical Research Center have developed a new nature-inspired material which could one day be used to replace nondegrading plastics. The material, which possesses firm and resilient properties similar to plastic, is made from wood cellulose fibers and the silk protein found in spider web threads.

“When we use two components [like] this, the material is called a composite material,” Aalto University professor Markus Linder told Digital Trends. “It is something like fiberglass where some strong fiber components are bound together by a matrix material, i.e., a resin. [In our case], the matrix material was silk that we made in bacteria and processed in a special way so that it functioned to bind the thin cellulose fibers together. The cellulose fibers we used came originally from wood — and you could also imagine to use any cellulose like old newspapers or cotton textiles as the source.”

As Linder notes, the spider silk used in the work was not actually produced by real spiders, but instead from synthetic DNA using bacteria. However, the results are chemically very similar to actual spider web threads.

This isn’t the first time that researchers have explored the potential applications of spider silk for intriguing projects — ranging from ultra-strong lightweight shields to possible drug delivery systems. But as revolutionary as both of those applications would be, if this latest project was able to help replace plastics it would be the biggest game-changer of all.

“I think that it would be possible to replace a wide range of different materials like plastics that we use for cars, cell phones, or computers,” Linder continued. “Also textiles, and why not even furniture? [To do this we will] need to create some variants with different properties.”

Don’t expect it to happen overnight, though. “Scaling up the production will require a lot of work,” Linder said. “There are a lot of details in how this should be done, and many potential problems. Some things work fine in the lab, but doing them in the large scale requires some very different solutions.”

A paper describing the research, titled “Biomimetic composites with enhanced toughening using silk-inspired triblock proteins and aligned nanocellulose reinforcements,” was recently published in the journal Science Advances.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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