A super-strong, super-light, super-stretchy fabric derived from spider silk is an idea that has been around for decades. For Kazuhide Sekiyama, it was a joke he discussed with drinking buddies as a grad student.
But after six years of development, his company, Spiber, believes they have done it. They call the product Qmonos, after the Japanese word for spider web.
Their process involves first synthesizing the "fibroin"—the protein that spider silk is made of—with a combination of genetic engineering and fermentation. Next, they use a version of spiders’ "spinners" to refine it into a usable fabric.
In a talk at TedX Tokyo, Sekiyama suggested the process could produce a spindle of Qmonos silk in three days. By 2015, they plan to produce 10 tons a year.
Sekyama lauds the material’s strength and flexibility, and says it could revolutionize everything from wind turbines to medical devices—once they’re able to further manipulate the amino acid sequence to create an even lighter, stronger product. "If this happens, then there will be cars that don’t hurt pedestrians even in a crash," he said through a translator.
Spiber has also suggested it could be valuable in moving toward a post-fossil-fuel future. "We use no petroleum in the production process of Qmonos," says spokesperson Shinya Murata. "But, we know that we need to think about the use of petroleum to produce nutrient source for bacteria, electric power, etc…"
Less clear is how Spiber squares that vision with their first factory. It’s a collaboration with Kojima Industries, a company that makes car parts for Toyota.
For now, the only application they have publicly displayed is a dress. Its shiny blue surface appears futuristic, but it’s functionality is limited. "Nobody wore the dress," says spokesperson Shinya Murata. "We made it only for displaying."
Nor does the dress demonstrate any claims about Qmonos silk’s strength. "The dress is not so tough," Murata says. "As same as normal dress. We focused on appearance this time, not on toughness."