- Cambridge University researchers have come up with a promising solution to our growing problem of plastic pollution.
- Vegetable “vegan spider silk” could replace the pollutants in everyday packaging materials, it says in their in. published paper Nature communication.
- A Cambridge spin-off called Xampla will commercialize the technology and plans to launch the synthetic spider silk in sachets and capsules in late 2021.
Cambridge University researchers may have a viable solution to the single-use plastic dilemma: spider silk. Or more precisely, a synthetic plant-based polymer that mimics the composition of spider silk, but doesn’t indeed come from the eight-legged arthropods.
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The researchers modeled their polymer after spider silk because of its durability and strength – if you could scale a spider web to human size, it would be able to capture an airplane. In fact, spider silk is five times stronger than steel and half as strong as Kevlar; it is considered to be one of the strongest naturally occurring materials on earth.
Incredibly, the scientists were developing the synthetic material while studying something completely different: protein formation and interactions. It all started with a series of protein analyzes in the laboratory of Tuomas Knowles, a professor in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. He wanted to understand why proteins are malformed in some cases, which leads to diseases and health problems in humans.
“Typically, we study how functional protein interactions enable us to stay healthy and how irregular interactions are linked to Alzheimer’s disease,” Knowles said in a Cambridge press release. “It was a surprise that our research could also address a major sustainability problem: that of plastic pollution.”
This protein-related research led Knowles and his team to consider how some materials like spider silk could be so strong given their weak molecular bonds. Spurred on by this question, the team began to think about how they could mimic the formation of molecular bonds and the self-assembly of spider silk in other proteins.
The researchers found success with soy protein isolate, which has a completely different molecular composition than spider silk because all proteins are made up of polypeptide chains. Because the researchers were able to work with the same starting material, they were able to use the soy protein isolate to recreate the dense molecular formation of spider silk. They describe the process in a June 10 article published in the magazine Nature communication.
From sustainable ingredients such as vegetable proteins, the researchers developed the “vegan spider silk”, which looks similar to plastic, but is compostable and has the potential for various uses, including as a water-repellent coating. The hope is that this new material will be an effective and environmentally friendly alternative to the harmful microplastics and single-use plastics found in everyday products from packaging materials to detergent capsules.
A Cambridge University spin-off called Xampla, which focuses on disposable plastic and microplastic replacements, will commercialize the technology. You can expect the synthetic spider silk in the form of disposable bags and capsules later this year.
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