02/09/19 Grown in the Lab: The North Face Moon Parka

While most winter parka jackets are made out of nylon, twill, or maybe waxed cotton, The North Face have come out with one made from synthetic spider silk.

The North Face Moon Parka, a prototype jacket created using a new material called Qmonos that promises to be stronger than steel, is a special edition coat from The North Face that’s currently on an exhibition tour of the company’s Japanese stores. With a very special, luminescent shell; the material is made from an ersatzspider silk developed by Japanese company Spiber, a biotechnology company engaged in the development of synthetic protein materials.

 

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Image courtesy: Spiber

 

According to Spiber’s website, the company is still working to increase yield, which will be vital to bringing this and other synthetic silk products to market The advantages of Spiber’s material over existing fabrics have yet to be made public, aside from the obvious. At the same time, The North Face still hasn’t settled on a price point for the jacket. In other words: there’s still plenty to be worked out. Even if these gold coats make their way to market, don’t expect to see synthetic spider silk everywhere just yet.

 

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Image courtesy: Polymers grown in the lab, using no fossil fuels or petroleum | Spiber

 

This jacket is more a proof of concept if you like. Spiber President Kazuhide Sekiyama launched the company in 2007 with a seemingly straightforward mission: to develop polymers with the near-magical properties of spider silk that can be produced sustainably, at scale.

And it’s not a new idea. Spider silk is renowned for its strength and resiliency; it’s tougher than Kevlar by weight but more elastic and responsive than fibres like cotton, making it a highly covetable material for manufacturers—especially those in the automobile, aeronautics, and military industries.

The thing is, farming silk from spiders isn’t as simple as harvesting wool from sheep, or milk from cows. It takes a lot of spiders a lot of time to produce not a lot of silk. What’s more, arachnids housed together in captivity have a nasty habit of eating one another. Consequently, researchers have been searching for a way to mass-produce synthetic spider silk for years. Usually, this involves inserting genes from spiders into other organisms—yeast, alfalfa, and even goats have been genetically modified to produce synthetic spider silk proteins.

To date, nobody has been able to manufacture synthetic silk on par with the real stuff. But companies like Spiber are getting closer.

 

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Image courtesy: Spiber

 

Spiber, for its part, uses genetically modified bacteria to produce its synthetic silk proteins. Researchers feed the bacteria sugar, which they turn into synthetic silk proteins. Those proteins are spun into silk polymers through an extrusion nozzle with microscopic holes that are meant to mimic a spider’s silk-spinning organ. Spiber has over 650 types of polymers in its lab and it’s an entirely biological process. One that Spiber says requires no fossil fuels or petroleum.

Course, Spiber isn’t the first to this discovery. California based Bolt Threads announced last year that it had managed to make synthetic spider silk at scale.

 

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Image courtesy: Spiber

 

Spiber and The North Face haven’t settled on a price yet but they are in the process of getting the Moon Parka ready for market. Plus, in the interest of Spiber’s ultimate goal, which is to “push humanity away from petroleum-based materials and toward a more sustainable future”, they hope to keep the cost as low as possible.

It’s supposed to go on sale sometime next year.