Can Utah State University-developed synthetic spider silk fibers transform the next generation of cars and trucks into lighter, more energy-efficient vehicles?
That’s the challenge USU researcher Randy Lewis will explore over the next two years with partners from the University of California, Riverside and Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The USU-led team, awarded $1.9 million in funding, is one of 14 projects selected nationally for a U.S. Department of Energy program aimed at exploring environmentally friendly highway transportation technologies to help reduce the nation’s petroleum use. DOE secretary Ernest Moniz announced the awards Aug. 21, 2014.
“We’re looking at two things: ‘Does it make sense to use spider silk fibers in place of carbon fibers in composites used in vehicles?’ and ‘Does it work to use spider silk fibers in current manufacturing processes?’” says Lewis, director of the university’s USTAR-initiated synthetic spider silk research lab.
While composites made from carbon fibers are lightweight, strong and a technological step ahead of sheet metals, they’re stiff and crack when bent.
“Unlike synthetic spider silk fibers, carbon fibers offer little elongation or flex,” says Lewis, professor in USU’s Department of Biology. “Vehicle side panels made from composites using spider silk would be light, strong and flexible. They’d be more damage-resistant, while promoting greater fuel efficiency.”
The project reunites Lewis with former student Cheryl Hayashi, MacArthur Fellow and professor at UC Riverside, who, as part of the DOE-funded effort, will explore use of protein genes from spider species beyond those used in the Lewis Lab.
“We’ve used genes from orb-weaver spiders, but Cheryl will investigate other species to determine if their silk properties could improve our fibers,” Lewis says.
The project will be among the first to take advantage of USU’s nearly completed bioproducts scale-up facility on Innovation Campus.
“For this kind of effort, we need commercial-scale quantities of silk for testing,” Lewis says.
In addition, the DOE award provides funding for two postdoctoral researchers, two graduate students and four undergraduate researchers.
The project will use synthetic silk produced from transgenic bacteria grown in the USU lab. Lewis and his team have also manufactured silk from transgenic alfalfa and silkworms, as well as milk from transgenic goats.
Lewis is featured speaker for the USU Office of Research and Graduate Studies’ Sunrise Session, “Spider Silk: Not Just Fibers Anymore,” Sept. 17, in Las Vegas.