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Air Force scientists study artificial silk for body armor, parachutes

Artificial silk fibers can be woven into sizeable, flexible fabrics using existing textile manufacturing methods.

Artificial silk fibers can be woven into sizeable, flexible fabrics using existing textile manufacturing methods. (Courtesy Photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- Who doesn’t like to feel warm in the winter and cool in the summer?

Inspired by the qualities of fibers found in nature, scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory and Purdue University are experimenting to develop a functional fiber that can be woven into sizeable, flexible fabrics using existing textile manufacturing methods.

Researchers are studying the cooling and temperature regulation properties of natural silk in order to apply it to synthetic fibers, such as artificial spider silk, which is both stronger than the polymer known commercially as Kevlar and more flexible than nylon.

Silk exhibits passive radiative cooling, meaning that it radiates more heat than it absorbs when in direct sunlight. On hot summer days, silk drops 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit when compared to reflective materials.

The cooling fabric is of tremendous potential benefit to the warfighter wearing body armor.

Bulletproof vests and parachutes are two articles in line to be constructed with artificial spider silk. Current vests are burdensome due to the heavy weight and non-breathing material they are fabricated with. Parachutes constructed of the new material will be stronger and able to carry larger payloads.

Estimates indicate that while artificial spider silk may initially cost twice as much as Kevlar, the product’s minimal weight, incredible strength and elasticity and potential adaptability for other needs are characteristics enhancing its salability.

“Making the warfighter more comfortable by enhancing body armor is just one of the many improvements my team hopes to make by studying natural silk,” said Dr. Augustine Urbas, researcher in the Functional Materials Division of the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. “Understanding natural silk will enable us to engineer multifunctional fibers with exponential possibilities. The ultra-strong fibers outperform the mechanical characteristics of many synthetic materials, as well as steel. These materials could be the future in comfort and strength in body armor and parachute material for the warfighter.”

Tents for forward operating bases could also be composed of the natural material. This would enable the warfighter to work in a cooler environment.

Fibroin, a silk protein secreted by the silkworm, can be processed into a lightweight material for fabricating artificially engineered synthetic and optical materials. The structured optical materials can reflect, absorb, concentrate or split light enabling a material to perform differently in a specific situation.

According to the AFRL researchers, understanding light transport and heat transfer will lead to various innovations and is a great opportunity.

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