Spider silk and shrilk among “biomimicry” breakthroughs

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A California-based manufacturer of bioengineered spider silk and shrimp-shell-based bioplastics are two examples of a new materials innovation trend based on biomimicry.

Dan Widmaier, Bolt Threads’ founder and CEO tells the Financial Times that copying materials found in nature will create a new wave of research. The company recently launched a knitted hat combining its bioengineered spider silk, produced via genetically modified yeast, and wool. “Right now, what you see is spider silk. But we are looking at the vast array of things that nature makes possible.”

Robert Ritchie, professor of materials science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, is imitating mother-of-pearl by bonding tiny plates of calcium carbonate. “That’s blackboard chalk, which is hardly a strong material,” he says. “But when nature makes this structure, the resulting toughness measured in the energy needed to break it can be 2,000 times greater than its individual components.”

In Boston, Javier Fernandez and a team of scientists at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering developed “shrilk” using chitin extracted from discarded shrimp cells. The material is as strong as aluminum alloy but half as heavy. “Nature needs to work with components that are abundant everywhere,” says Fernandez says. “The only way to do that is to organize those components in the most efficient way possible.” Though commercial production or even prototype development has been limited, Fernandez believes biomimicry progress will accelerate. “Natural materials are going to bring in a completely new age,” he says. “I think we are going to see really big changes in 15 to 20 years.”