Plant-based spider silk could one day replace everyday single-use plastics


Image credit: Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

Single-use plastics could one day become a thing of the past, thanks to a new material developed by Cambridge scientists which imitates spider silk.

Created by a team from the University of Cambridge, the plant protein-based plastic alternative is as strong as many plastics in use today and could replace all manner of common household products in the future. It’s a polymer film that is designed to mimic spider silk — one of nature’s strongest materials — on a molecular level. The result is a plastic-like free-standing film which can be produced on an industrial scale and breaks down fully without impacting the environment.

The ‘vegan spider silk’ will be commercialised by Xampla, a University of Cambridge spin-out which is looking to release its first products made from the material later this year. One of Xampla’s first targets is to replace the plastic sachets used to package dishwasher tablets and laundry detergent capsules.

In a recent visit to Xampla’s BioInnovation Building lab, Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner hailed Xampla’s protein-based alternative to plastic as “terrific”.

Speaking after his visit on July 16, Mr Zeichner — a proclaimed environmentalist — said: “It’s plastic-free July and I know this has resonated with many in the city. We have seen world-changing science come out of Cambridge throughout history.

“It’s terrific for the city to know that it is once again a part of such an incredible breakthrough, and one the planet is desperately calling for.”

Xampla’s plastic alternative’s strength lies in the regular arrangement of its chains. Its unique properties mean there is no need for chemical cross-linking, a technique frequently used to improve the performance and resistance of biopolymer films. The most common cross-linking agents are non-sustainable and can even be toxic.

The next-generation technology is the result of 15 years of research into the chemical properties of proteins, all inspired by spiders’ silk’s natural strength.

Xampla CEO Simon Hombersley said: “Cambridge has excellence in sustainability research, and a good number of innovative spin-outs like Xampla are aiming to address global environmental problems.

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