The Unlikely Commercial Potential Of Spider Webs

Clinics and industrialists are trying to make use of the unique fibers of spider webs. But producing the precious molecule that forms it in sufficient quantities isn't easy.

The Nephila clavipes' "golden web"
The Nephila clavipes' "golden web"
Lucile Morin

HANNOVER — The female Nephila Clavipes, a spider as big as the palm of the hand and present all across the Southern Hemisphere, weaves huge, golden webs that are worth a lot. Light, surprisingly elastic and flexible, as well as being more resistant than steel or nylon, the natural silk this arachnid produces also has shape retention memory.

Industrialists looking for high-performance technical fibers and textiles have had their eyes on the qualities of this biological material for a long time. But although the weaving of this dazzling yellow thread has been mastered since the 17th century to make sumptuous sets of clothing, supply is a more delicate question.

Gathering by "reeling" consists of painlessly immobilizing these giant weavers and delicately pulling the filament from their abdomen, simultaneously rolling it up around a spool. The technique, which produces 200 meters of silk in 15 minutes, is used by the team of Professor Peter Vogt, lab chief at the Department of Plastic, Hand and Reconstructive Surgery in Hannover, Germany, to experiment with the properties of the silk on sheep.

Biocompatible, biodegradable and hypoallergenic, the natural silk of the Nephila Edulis, bred on site, does not cause any rejection or inflammation. It produces perfect stitching material, aids healing and is a good indicator for the regeneration of skin, cartilage and nerve cells, which adapt to it easily. Clinical trials are set to take place soon.

At the Institute of Physics in Rennes, France, the Nephila Clavipes' web is preferred for its structural characteristics. It has a diameter of just one millionth of a meter and is smooth throughout its whole length. What's more, it's medically neutral and more resistant than glass and silk and could one day replace the optical fibers in fiberscopes and endoscopes.

Industrialists are eagerly awaiting the extraordinary properties of spider silk. But because of the cannibalism of certain species, intensive breeding is complicated, and the artisanal technique of the "trade" excludes large-scale production. This is why specialists are stretching their imagination to try to reproduce these qualities in a biosynthetic way.

Spider silk is a biopolymer comprised of a family of proteins. To produce these proteins, Randy Lewis, the head of the Synthetic Biomanufacturing Institute at the University of Utah, is taking over work on transgenesis that was initiated 15 years ago by the Canadian company Nexia Biotechnologies but that had been stopped.

With genetic modification, he is currently breeding around 30 chimera, surrogate goats carrying the spider silk production gene. These transgenic animals produce up to 4 grams of silk protein per liter of milk. Once grinded down to powder, they are rehydrated and woven.

"The goats produce good quality protein, but the purification still needs to be improved," Lewis explains. "We are also working on the Escherichia coli bacteria, which is easy to manipulate genetically and commonly used for the production of protein. And we are trying to increase the proportion of spider protein secreted by our transgenic silkworms."

The fibers could be used in medicine but also for the manufacturing of clothing and sport gear, automobile parts, transparent film, coating, adhesive and gel. It's a market with enormous potential, and the German company AMSilk has positioned itself well for it after announcing last year that it had succeeded in producing a natural polymer with mechanical properties similar to spider silk, via transgenic bacteria. It plans on commercializing a range of products designed for the cosmetics industry and manufacturing medical products such as breast implants by 2016.

The American company Kraig Biocraft Laboratories is also collecting patents so that it can produce the highly resistant fiber "monster silk." It is working on the development of, construction and protection against explosion materials as well as bulletproof vests.

Finally, silk yarn, which can withstand extremely low and high temperatures, could be used to make spacesuits.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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