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Synthetic Fiber Inspired by Nature and Stronger Than Steel

The North Face Moon Parka Spiber

Outdoor apparel companies are always pushing the envelope when it comes to new fabrics and finishes—and The North Face’s next jacket is no exception.

Dubbed the Moon Parka, it looks like the brand’s existing Antarctica style but the new garment features an outer shell made from Qmonos, a synthetic spider silk developed by Japanese company Spiber that is said to be stronger than steel, tougher than Kevlar and lighter than carbon fiber.

Speaking Wednesday at Wear Conference (May 24-26) in Boston, Kenji Higashi, director and executive officer of Spiber, explained the big part protein plays in the technology.

“Each time a plant reproduces there will be some natural mutations that occur in the genes of these organisms, causing them to create new protein designs. And when the protein design is good, that will survive natural selection and will evolve,” Higashi said, noting that Spiber is trying to tap into this process. “Fibroin, the protein material we’re focusing on the most, is the toughest material in nature.”

To that end, Spiber’s manmade silk uses synthetized genes that coax bacteria to produce fibroin, which in nature is used for making things like beehives and egg sacs.

“We first design the molecules of the protein polymers we’re creating,” Higashi said, noting that a fermentation process follows. “Once we have polymers we can spin them [into yarns] or make resins and prototype products using these materials.”

That’s where the material used to make the Moon Parka came from. The opportunities, however, are endless, Higashi said.

“The organism acts as a platform in which we can insert the DNA we designed to code for the polymer that we want. This is a very powerful platform because we can change the DNA very easily using our biotechnology, and by changing the sequence of the DNA we can change amino acids and obtain new polymers that have entirely different functionalities,” he said.

In fact, using insight from nature, Spiber has created 700-plus variations of protein polymers. And while the cost of production is currently quite steep (the industry standard for fermentation is between $200 and $300 per kilogram, according to Higashi), the company is working toward producing materials at scale for $10 per kilogram

“This is possible because not only are we tuning the production process, we’re actually designing the protein and DNA sequence to improve productivity to allow us to have this target,” Higashi said.