Calling Peter Parker: Army looks to spiders to save soldiers' lives

Story highlights

  • Lighter body armor has long been in high demand for troops on patrol in hot climates
  • The Army's current body armor can weigh 30 pounds or more

Washington (CNN)American soldiers on the battlefield might one day depend on spiderwebs to save their lives.

The Army now operates in some of the hottest places on the globe -- Baghdad can reach 125 degrees in summer -- but its current body armor for soldiers can weigh 30 pounds or more and includes woven Kevlar and ceramic plates.
    Now, some relief might be on the way.
    The Army is exploring whether the material spiders use to make their webs could be used to replace Kevlar and provide lighter, stronger and more comfortable protective gear.
    "Mother Nature has created and optimized many extraordinary materials," said Debi Dawson, a spokesperson for the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier, the body responsible for boosting the service's capabilities.
    Spider silk "could have the ideal combination of high strength, high toughness and bio-compatibility that no man-made fibers could reach."
    To that end, her office awarded a $99,962 contract in mid-July in order to produce testing packs to see how the material holds up under fire.
    Spider silk is "one of the toughest materials known to man," according to Jon Rice, the chief operating officer of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, company Kraig Biocraft that received the contract.
    Rice said it was "almost as strong as Kevlar and about 10 times more flexible."
    Spider silk is also lighter than Kevlar, a synthetic fiber first developed in the 1960s and currently used in tires and protective gear such as helmets and tactical vests.
    And since today's counterinsurgency and training missions often require soldiers to be out of their vehicles and bases, engaging with local populations and forces on foot, mobility is particularly important in whatever armor they wear.
    About six years ago, Kraig Biocraft was able to genetically engineer silkworms to produce spider silk, which Rice said allowed the company to produce the material in an economical way.
    The process combines the strength of spider silk with the mass production ability of silk worms, which produce traditional silk.
    Rice added that the idea of using the technology for military applications came early on in the development process.
    He said he had the opportunity to accompany the US Marine Corps during their Cobra Gold training exercise in Thailand. After trying on their body armor in the more than 100-degree-heat, he was struck by how heavy and immobile the protective gear was.
    "I'm passionate about keeping these guys safe," he said.
    The Army noted that the project is still in its earliest exploratory stages but said the research could have a major impact down the road.