An aircraft made of silk fibers? What sounds like an unpalatable sci-fi story could became reality within the next decade. Thanks to a start-up named AMSilk that succeeded in creating an advanced composite fiber based on spider silk. The Planegg near Munich-based company has signed an agreement with plane maker Airbus aimed at jointly launching a prototype composite material for aircraft production next year.
The first aircraft ever that had successfully taken to the skies were made of wood and canvas, followed decades after by aluminum-built fuselages which – although still in use – are increasingly
surrogated by components made of multi-layer composite material.
From spider webs …
Now, the next innovation seems to be just around the corner: aircraft built of synthetic silk biopolymers. The material’s model role is nature itself. In this case spiders that are living here on earth since nearly 300 million years. Time enough for these creatures to develop, optimize and fine-tune silk fibers offering high durability and elasticity, ideally suited for catching their prey.
This remarkable feedstock produced by spiders has attracted the attention of Thomas Scheibel, the holder of the chair of biomaterials at Bayreuth University in Bavaria, southern Germany. He and his team succeeded in discovering the blueprint of species-specific proteins spiders possess enabling them to produce long chains of protein molecules for spinning their threads. Next, he developed a method to inject the blueprint into the genome of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, which then replicate the protein.
…. to biosteel
This scientific breakthrough was the starting point for AMSilk to give the green light for their bionic composite material called “Biosteel.” The product, first presented back in 2013, is the result of investing more than 200,000 bioengineer man hours and lots of know-how.
Thanks to the cooperation agreement signed now between ANSilk and Airbus, the European plane maker becomes the first in the industry to experiment with the new fiber.
Both partners have set the bar very high: The aim is to design and construct future Airbus planes in an entirely new way by using and testing AMSilk’s Biosteel fiber. According to the Bavarian
company, their new composite enables lightweight construction with multiple shock resistance and flexibility.
Will we see a super fiber?
As demand for air travel and air cargo transport continues to increase, the need for superior designed and lighter aircraft burning less fuel grows, without compromising on structural strength and velocity.
“We are excited to be working with Airbus, the world leader in performance airplanes, to create a fundamentally new material,” said Jens Klein, CEO of AMSilk. “At AMSilk, we are committed to producing materials that are both high-performing and sustainable, and the current partnership with Airbus is an opportunity to set a new, stronger and more sustainable course for the entire aerospace industry.”
The test series will be jointly carried out in Munich.
According to the announcement, AMSilk and Airbus aim to launch a prototype of the composite material specifically suited for constructing passenger and cargo aircraft or parts of them during next year.
Interview: Constructing Aircraft in an Entirely New Way
For further details on the threat’s potential we have asked Airbus to express their interests in the new material and test series. Here is what their communications manager Daniel Werdung stated:
Mr Werdung, what role do you expect the fibre to play in aircraft manufacturing?
Airbus is the first in the industry to experiment with Biosteel fiber. Airbus wants to position itself as a leader within the aerospace industry in the research field of this new material to understand its capabilities and applications ahead of its competitors. We intend to explore how AMSilk’s Biosteel fiber can allow us to approach the design and construction of our planes in an entirely new way.
Has the new fiber the potential to revolutionaries your industrial processes?
Biosteel fiber promises flexibility in comparison to carbon fiber, enabling novel design and construction techniques for the planes of the future without compromising on strength. Biosteel is identical in molecular composition to spider silk, a material known for its strength, flexibility and lightweight structure and which has an exceptional capability of absorbing energy.
For which parts of an aircraft could the artificial silk proteins become a structural alternative to today used materials?
This fiber could not only help on the aircraft's outer skin – reducing the impact of objects hitting the plane and cutting maintenance time – but can also potentially be used inside the cabin to take advantage of spider silk's antibacterial properties.
Could the AMSilk developed fibers basically replace carbon fiber components in a/c construction ?
This is subject to the upcoming investigation. We will investigate the biosteel potential to improve the portfolio of options for our products. The question of replacement is not the focus.
Are the spider fibers compatible with 3D printing or are both applications incompatible ?
Spider silk is in principle 3D printable.
Report and interview: Heiner Siegmund