From carpets to clothes to toothpaste to ballpoint pens, most of us don’t realize how much of our everyday lives is made with petroleum. Yet most everyone agrees that we need to end our reliance on fossil fuel economy and its negative environmental impacts. Companies are beginning to see that brands with legitimate sustainability claims do better. What’s more, the move toward biomanufacturing is creating new efficiencies in production that will make those companies more competitive in the new bioeconomy.
Set among the rice fields of Yamagata prefecture is Japan’s largest startup, Spiber, which is quietly working toward achieving that sustainable new bioeconomy. Each of Spiber’s 200+ team members — each of whom sets their own salary — express an earnest goal to maximize the company’s contributions to society through innovation in the next-generation sustainable material: proteins.
Proteins are a game changer in the materials industry. They are biomolecules, environmentally friendly, and extremely flexible when it comes to functionality — not to mention the potential to improve their native biological function or to incorporate new properties through synthetic biology.
However, synthetic protein materials are currently facing a significant issue: the cost barrier, which is on the order of $100 USD per kilogram, mainly due to the costs of the fermentative process used to produce synthetic proteins. To push for a widespread adoption of a material, the cost of these sustainable materials needs to be around $20-$30 USD per kilogram to compete with natural silk or wool, and less than $10 USD per kilogram to be able to compete with petrochemical based materials, such as polyester or nylon.
Building the world’s largest structural protein fermentation facility
During Spiber’s twelve-year journey in understanding and mastering proteins, they have developed in-house cutting-edge technologies allowing them to increase protein design and production efficiency. Their goal is to bring down the production cost of protein fermentation by an order of magnitude to $10 USD per kilogram – competitive with the petrochemical industry.
“Our main priority for the last couple of years has been getting to the point where we have the skills needed to get the price point down to tens of dollars” says David Lips, a researcher at Spiber. “From here it will be a matter of driving adoption across the world.”
On the heels of this momentum, in late November last year Spiber announced the construction of a mass production plant in Rayong, Thailand. Commercial production of synthetic spider silk is expected to start in 2021, with a production capacity of several hundred tons per year. With this expansion to an overseas location, Spiber aims to build the world’s largest structural protein fermentation facility, which will allow them to manufacture sustainable protein-based materials at a competitive cost.
From consumer goods to robotics
Spiber is doing all of this with synthetic spider silk — a fiber which, found in nature, is 340 times stronger than steel. Spider silk is also flexible and malleable, and can be added to a wide range of existing polymers to enhance and strengthen them. Spiber’s synthetic fibers are the basis of the Moon Parka, an outdoor jacket produced by The North Face Japan and the first prototype made on a standard manufacturing line with recombinant protein fibers. The company has also partnered with automotive giant Lexus to present the Kinetic Seat concept — a seat cushion and backrest designed to react kinetically to the passenger’s weight and vehicle motion for a more comfortable experience — displayed at the 2016 Paris Motor Show.
The North Face Spiber Moon Parka is the world’s first prototype produced on standard mass-manufacturing equipment with recombinant spider silk. The prototype has a unique glow thanks to the outer material, which is the same color as a Golden Orb spider web, and is produced without relying on petroleum as a raw material. Image courtesy of Spiber.
But this is only the beginning. Spiber’s initial target industries are apparel and automotive, each with markets on the order of trillions of dollars, but once synthetic spider silk is widely adopted by the apparel and automotive industries, Spiber expects other markets will quickly follow — markets like medical devices, construction, sports, aerospace, furniture, and robotics.
“We are able to create materials beyond just textiles, like stiff resins and plastic-like materials” says Lips.
It may seem ambitious to break into such a wide variety of niche markets, but Spiber is uniquely positioned to achieve such a lofty goal. Diverse implementations of synthetic spider silk have given the Spiber team the opportunity to intimately interact with a wide variety of processes, gaining expertise to turn synthetic spider silk proteins into a range of materials.
“Consider us as world experts in the areas of spinning these proteins materials and processing them into all sorts of materials,” says Lips. All sorts of materials that will be used in the future with the same ubiquity as metal or glass in the manufacturing industry. Today, that industry relies on petroleum. By moving proteins to a cost and utility bracket that rivals that of the petrochemical industry, Spiber is spearheading the transition of petroleum-based consumer goods to the next generation of greener products.
Creating a greener future
“Protein materials can replace a lot of the materials that are currently being produced in ways that are not necessarily great for the planet” says Lips, adding, “Spiber always communicates its mission to maximize its contribution to society.”
With the greater good in mind, sustainability has been Spiber’s leitmotif across everything they’ve done so far — and it will continue to be in the future, since this is one of the strongest factors driving the demand for their product. Environmental responsibility lies at Spiber’s core, with simultaneous implications in the bioeconomy by driving consumer’s decisions and raising awareness, in politics by dictating development agendas, and in the adoption of innovations.
Spiber’s synthetic spider silk thread, ehre being spun into material that can produce apparel, auto parts, and other products. Image courtesy of Spiber.
“Many companies are trying to do better because of the environment, [and] I think this is one of the big reasons reason that they want to work with us” says Ayana Nakajima of Spiber’s marketing department. “Using these kinds of fermented protein materials that can replace chemical-sourced material and even improve upon them is interesting for a lot of companies” adds Lips.
After all, the world needs more companies and products with environmental awareness, and with companies like Spiber laying the foundation for what this looks like, one can be sure that in a few years there will be room in the market only for those contributing to a greener future.
Meet Spiber and learn more about biomanufacturing of materials and chemicals at SynBioBeta 2019: The Global Synthetic Biology Summit, October 1-3, San Francisco1