Cambridge University invents vegan spider silk to replace single-use plastics

19 Jul 2021

Xampla, a spinoff from Cambridge University, is working on commercializing a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastics that is made out of plant products but where the molecular structure is manipulated to resemble spider silk.

The polymer film is comprised of crystalline and amorphous chains that have been genetically engineered to replicate the protein chains that are present in a spider’s web, which is one of the earth's strongest natural materials.

Cambridge University invents vegan spider silk to replace single-use plastics
Courtesy of Xampla

Currently Xampla is working with commercially available soy and pea protein to create these protein chains that will become a flexible, bio-degradable film, but Food Navigator reported that the firm’s technology can be used on a wide variety of plant proteins.

What makes Xampla’s research intriguing is the startup’s pursuit of creating a transparent plant-based film. Currently, there are many plant-based, bio-degradable packaging options available on the market, but due to the non-soluable molecular makeup of proteins, it is difficult to chain these proteins together to create a see-through material that is reminiscent of plastic.

However, Xampla has discovered a method to accomplish this feat. Using a vinegar-based mild solvent, scientists have been able to unfold plant proteins and render them sufficiently malleable to rearrange them at a molecular level. Doing so has allowed Xampla to create chains that resemble spider silk that can then be woven together into a transparent film that performs like plastic.

The startup noted that it is still perfecting the color and texture of the plant-based film. Additionally, when the bio-based alternative initially becomes available, Xampla said it will be more expensive than petroleum-derived plastics. However, Xampla noted that as the demand scales and production increases, price parity with traditional plastic is a distinct possibility.

While the technology has not yet progressed to the point where it is commercially available, the startup anticipates that it will launch its first products in 2022. In addition to bio-based transparent sachets, Xampla is looking at water-soluble solutions that will dissipate should the packaging comes into contact with water. A water-soluble solution has the advantage of helping to avert a further increase in the number of plastics, including microplastics, that find their way into the ocean and do not biodegrade.

Xampla is working on this plastic alternative at a time when the European Union is rolling out the Directive on Single-Use Plastics which outlawed plastic products such as straws and utensils beginning on July 3, when there are sustainable and affordable alternatives easily available.

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