HomeBody Armor MaterialsSpider Silk: The New Material Used in Body Armor

Spider Silk: The New Material Used in Body Armor

The latest type of armor the U.S. Army considers is not at all what you would expect. It’s not some tough new chemical composition or porcelain to replace Aramid. It’s actually spider silk. Body armor can be made from spider silk and is in serious development even if it may seem farfetched. A decade from now, the military may be ordering body armor made from this incredibly lightweight material.

The Properties of Spider Silk

Spider silk contains a protein-rich liquid, which when dry forms a solid filament that can take different shapes to meet various needs. For example, the spider can create an egg sac or weave a web for capturing food. Spider silk is highly flexible, extremely stretchable, surpasses steel in strength, and most importantly, spider silk can form a bulletproof mesh. Spider silk was not used so far because, until recently, nobody had found a way to make enough of it to manufacture and test possible options to find out whether it really can stop modern bullets.

The History of Spider Silk in Clothing and Armor

The idea of utilizing silk for crafting bulletproof vests isn’t a recent innovation, its origins stretching back centuries. Over three hundred years ago, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) proposed the notion of creating body armor from spider silk. He aimed to find a material that combined lightweight, flexibility, and strength for crafting a protective fabric. Leibniz, although never personally witnessing silk’s resistance to bullets, he deemed it the most promising candidate. Believing silk to be at its strongest within the cocoon, Leibniz suggested a fabric from pressed layers of silkworm cocoons.

The credit for inventing the silk bulletproof vest goes to George Emory Goodfellow after he observed silk’s resilience against bullets. In one of his publications, Goodfellow recounted incidents where gunshot victims’ silk handkerchiefs proved resistant to bullets. This could be observed as the bullets had driven the largely undamaged handkerchief into the victim’s body.

Spider Silk Vest |© We Are The Mighty

Therefore, the idea of using spider silk garments isn’t new, but it’s an entirely different matter when considering mass-producing it. The vest seen in the photo on the right contains silk from Madagascar’s Golden Orb Spider. The designers spent eight years using a million spiders just to make this one vest. However, the new body armor is not going to require anything this complicated.

Manufacturing Technologies

Utah State University researchers have found a way to alter the DNA of silkworms so that they can incorporate spider proteins into the silk threads they produce. This new silk has double the strength and higher elasticity than normal silkworm silk, also fostering opportunities for mass-production. The resulting material successfully stopped a slow-moving .22-caliber bullet using just four layers, which is highly impressive as today’s standard bullet proof vests contain thirty-three layers of Aramid.

Later, in 2018, Kraig Biocraft Labs announced that it was manufacturing large quantities of panels like the ones on the right for the U.S. Army. They are calling this new fabric “Dragon Silk”, and they developed it without using millions of spiders as well. Kraig Biocraft used patented genetic proteins to create silkworms similar to the ones created by the researchers at Utah State. Rather than settling for standard body armor, Kraig Biocraft may be the first to design armor truly protecting the groin.

Jon Rice, Kraig Biocraft COO said, “We are so excited and proud to see the amazing break-through technology that we spent years developing, going to the U.S. Army. Speaking for myself and for the Company, being given an opportunity to protect the men and women who are brave enough to put their lives on the line for our protection, is an enormous honor.”

Latest Developments

In a groundbreaking development, Chinese scientists engineered spider silks that are tougher than traditional bulletproof vests. By creating spider silk fibers using genetically-engineered silkworms, they have managed to exhibit a staggering six-fold increase in toughness when compared to conventional body armor materials. This achievement opens up new horizons in material science having the potential to revolutionize current protective gear.

The research, conducted by scientists from Donghua University, entails a deep understanding of materials like nylon and Kevlar. Drawing inspiration from these materials, the researchers formulated a novel theory about the inherent toughness and strength of fibers. Through their work, they unveiled the fundamental structure of silk fibers, shedding light on the secrets of nature’s strongest threads.

To bring their theory to life, the scientists employed advanced gene editing techniques, leading to the synthesis of complete polyamide spider silk fibers derived from transgenic silkworms. The results were remarkable, as these spider silk fibers demonstrated high tensile strength and an exceptional level of toughness. This pioneering research, recently published in the journal Matter, marks a significant step forward in the quest for more resilient and adaptable materials for various applications, from protective gear to medical advancements.

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  1. Hello Scott,

    Is there supposed to be a picture of a bulletproof vest and spider silk panels in this article? Also, I believe you meant to say “from” not “form”. Otherwise good piece. So is the Army actually creating bullet proof prototypes at this time from Kraig’s spider silk? Thank you!

    “The vest seen in the photo above was made of silk form Madagascar’s Golden Orb Spider.”

    “Kraig Biocraft Labs announced in 2018 that it was manufacturing large quantities of panels like the ones seen above for the U.S. Army.”

    “Body armor made from spider silk is in serious development and it is not as farfetched as it may seem.”

  2. Still puzzled; “Great strength and amazing flexability”. This brings up the primary consideration for bullets, that is stopping power. I fail to see the value of a protective vest made of this material. While its great strength will not let the bullet pass through it, its great flexability will then stretch with the force of the bullets impact and form the material into a dull knife like tool which will then penatrate the body. The good thing is you would be able to pull on the vest and extract the bullet leaving a clean wound.
    Then a man is wearing conventional armor and is hit with a bullet. It does not penetrate but the force of the projectile commonly knocks the victim down often bruising him as well. However the bullet is stopped.

    • When something is flexible, it has the ability to bend or deform under external forces, which allows it to disperse force from a small point of impact more effectively. This phenomenon is commonly observed in various materials and structures, and it’s essential for improving safety and reducing damage in many applications.

      Here’s how something flexible disperses force from a small point of impact:

      • Load Distribution: When a force is applied to a small point on a flexible material or structure, it distributes that force over a larger area. Instead of concentrating the impact on one spot, the flexible material spreads the load, which helps to reduce the stress at any single point. This is similar to how weight is distributed over a larger area when you walk on snow with snowshoes, preventing you from sinking.

      • Energy Absorption: Flexible materials have the ability to absorb and dissipate energy when subjected to an impact. When a force is applied to the material, it deforms and stores some of the energy in the form of strain. As a result, the impact force is absorbed and spread out over a greater surface area, reducing the intensity of the force at any specific point.

      • Resilience: Flexibility often goes hand in hand with resilience, meaning that after deformation, the material can return to its original shape. This property allows the flexible material to “bounce back” to some extent after an impact, further reducing the lasting effects of the force.

      • Crack Deflection: In some cases, flexible materials can guide the propagation of cracks or fractures away from the point of impact. This behavior helps prevent catastrophic failure and extends the material’s ability to withstand repeated impacts.

      • Layered Structures: Many flexible materials are designed with multiple layers or specialized structures that work together to distribute and dissipate force. For example, in some protective gear like helmets or body armor, a combination of rigid and flexible layers is used to manage the impact energy effectively.

      It’s important to note that while flexibility can disperse force and improve impact resistance, there are limits to what a flexible material can withstand. Extremely high forces or impacts beyond the material’s capabilities can still cause damage or failure. Engineers and designers carefully consider the specific application and required level of protection when selecting materials and structures to ensure optimal performance.


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