/Dreaming of spider webs and the new hemp paradigm

Dreaming of spider webs and the new hemp paradigm

Daily Deals

By Andrew Kelly

Attending the International Conference on Natural Fibers (ICNF) in Portugal recently, it is fair to say I was blown away by some of the innovative ideas and current product developments in the natural fibers sector – and hemp is playing a bigger and bigger role.

Of
the more than 150 oral presentations made at the conference, a full
10% were about hemp. Hemp as biomass, textile applications, sorbents,
fibers, you name it. Several other presentations about cellulose were
also largely based on hemp, as were a few that explored lignin, which
also can be derived from hemp.

Massive shift

This
is a massive shift from previous conferences where jute and flax
would have been most prominent on the program.

Everything from harvesting, de-gumming, end use applications, scientific and technical advances in natural fibers was discussed. But I was particularly struck by a major breaktrough presented by Thomas Scheibel, University of Bayreuth, Germany, and co-founder of the biotech company AMSilk, who is working with biomimetic spider silk.

Scientists say that if massively scaled up, a spider-built web would be strong enough to catch a jetliner. They have discovered that the webs get their strength through thousands of smaller strands that stick together to form the spider’s trap. Such “dragline silk” exhibits extraordinary mechanical properties combining a moderate strength with good stretchability; that results in a toughness exceeding all other natural or synthetic fibers, Scheibel told the conference. Indeed, spider silk or “spider steel” has long been mooted as a material of almost mythical qualities, but no one could produce it outside of nature until now.

Mimicking the spider

Scheibel
told how the material is being produced through bio-mimicry in which
the actions of a spider’s back legs are replicated mechanically.

This is not just theory. At present, Omega is making watch straps from this material, and ADIDAS is testing it for a new line of trainers and footwear.

The
web is pure protein, anti-microbal, anti-bacterial and suitable for
many applications both industrial and medical. In theory if you were
stuck on the side of a mountain you could eat your shoes to sustain
yourself. It doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it’s only protein!

Can hemp fit in?

Hemp,
being both a protein and cellulose based plant, seems to have the
characteristics necessary to adhere to the spider silk. When I
collared Scheibel with this suggestion following his presentation, he
was quite upbeat about hemp’s potential in this application.

As
spider silk is one of the toughest materials known to man, having a
reliable technique and optimal materials to produce it may prove to
be invaluable.

Another
presentation at the conference, a timeline of fabrics both natural
and man-made, also proved rather insightful. Hemp, jute, wool and
silk fabrics being archaeologically proven to have been used by man
for centuries, thus followed in 1823 Waterproof Fabric (the Macintosh
raincoat); Rayon (1855); Denim (1873); Viscose (1894) (derived from
Rayon); Vinyl (1926); Nylon (1938); Polyester (1941); Velcro (1955);
Spandex (1958); GORE-TEX (1958); and Kevlar (1965).

Dreaming of spider webs

Any
material produced since 1965 has been either a blend or an adaption
of one of these materials and, as most reading this will know, the
ban on hemp that started in 1945 hampered any major impact with this
material in the intervening years.

I’ve
been dreaming of spider webs ever since Portugal. And wondering if
Scheibel’s work might ultimately produce yet another fascinating
application for this amazing plant as hemp enters a new paradigm.

Andrew
Kelly
is
researching hemp and hemp applications with an emphasis on the
potential for affordable fiber decortication technology in
farm-to-factory value chains

Andrew Kelly is researching hemp and hemp applications with an emphasis on the potential for affordable fiber decortication technology in farm-to-factory value chains.

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