Jan 2, 2024
Will Your Next Supercar Be Made Of… Spider Webs?
It works for Spiderman and it could work for you. No, really.
BY MARK VAUGHNPUBLISHED: JAN 2, 2024
Gram-for-gram spider silk is the strongest stuff around. Now a company in Utah and California has a plan to make a supercar out of it.
Spidey Tek uses research from Utah State University’s Synthetic Biomanufacturing Facility to grow spider-silk proteins cheaply in alfalfa, extract it, weave it into fibers, blend it with carbon fiber, and lay up 100 naturally aspirated V12-powered supercars. What could possibly go wrong?
$3 million price tag. Delivery in three to four years if everything goes right.
If Spiderman made a car, he’d make it from spider silk. The sticky stuff is the strongest, lightest material on the planet, and yet it bends where brittle carbon fiber breaks and it costs a lot less than carbon fiber, aluminum, or titanium. And if one entrepreneur gets his way, it will make up what could be the world’s strongest, lightest supercar ever made.
Roberto Velozzi wants to take technology developed by Utah State University’s Synthetic Biomanufacturing Facility, along with his own work in the field, and apply it to a supercar. USU’s facility was created “to support research associated with the Utah Science and Technology Research (USTAR) initiative and was initially designed to produce pilot-scale amounts of synthetic spider silk to support the commercialization of USU Professor Randy Lewis’s innovative research,” according to a USU press release, one of many on the subject.
You can see a lot of supercar elements in the Velozzi.
Uses for spider silk are limited only by imagination. Various aerospace companies are interested in it for obvious reasons, as are carmakers. The medical industry sees uses for it not just because of its strength but because of its natural antigen qualities. It can be whipped up into a glue stronger than the best adhesive products on the market. And...
“It can be used for electronics, for films. It can be used for foams, aerogels, and you can use it to regrow tissue,” enthused Velozzi. “You can use it as a platform—it’s got a lot of medical applications; it can be used to replace tendons, ligaments. It’s a non-antigenic, so your body doesn’t reject it, doesn’t see it as a foreign entity, so artificial organs, components suit it perfectly.”
Is it a dessert topping? No. At least not yet.
Just infuse alfalfa with these proteins and start harvesting. Alfalfa can produce five crops a year.
At Utah State University there is an actual department called the Spider Silk Lab. Check out some of the university’s press releases on the research here. Velozzi says there are over 60 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, and the company has over 50 global patents.
They are basically taking everything you see in those Spiderman movies and finding practical uses for it. Velozzi has partnered with Utah State University’s Dr. Randy Lewis to apply some of what Lewis has discovered about spider silk to the car world. Specifically, to the “Velozzi Hypercar.”
Velozzi wants to blend spider silk with carbon fiber to make an even stronger material for both the body and the chassis of the V12-powered two-seater you see here.
“Spider silk has high strength, elasticity, and toughness which is unmatched by most industrial fibers,” Velozzi said. “Gram-for-gram, certain spider-silk fibers can be stronger than titanium and more elastic than rubber, absorbing considerable amounts of energy before failure. This exceptionally lightweight biomaterial is an ideal replacement for, or a reinforcement to carbon-fiber composites.
“Carbon-fiber composites maintain their inherent strength and stiffness when blended with spider silk yet gain improved fracture toughness. Harnessing this synergy between the high-performance nature of carbon fiber and spider silk will produce an enhanced composite for the next generation of high-performance, efficient, resilient vehicles.”
But how do you get spider silk from spiders? Tiny milking machines? Convince them to donate it in exchange for regular deliveries of gourmet flies? No. Spidey Tek, the company Velozzi founded and for which Dr. Lewis is the “chief science officer,” wants to use a protein found in naturally occurring spider silk and grow it in alfalfa.
“The Velozzi is being engineered and built in both the UK and Italy in partnerships with global manufacturing partners with an extensive winning F-1 heritage.”
Once the alfalfa is harvested, it will be put in a solution so the spider silk can be separated out. The remaining alfalfa can be fed to cattle, thus paying for the process of creating the silk.
Want even more details? The alfalfa-sourced silk forms longer, stronger protein molecules than other source materials. You measure those things in something called kilodaltons, or kDa, a unit used to express molecular mass, especially for large molecules such as proteins and polysaccharides.
Yes, those nasty polysaccharides.
“Alfalfa proteins have longer measurements in kilodaltons than when you produce proteins using animal vectors such as insects or bacteria,” Velozzi said. “With animal vectors you only produce short, 60- to 80-kilodaltons maximum dimension. Alfalfa-produced proteins are 250 to 300 kilodaltons. So there are long, very long proteins, and bacteria in animal organisms can only produce short proteins, whereas plants produce longer ones.”
Alfalfa, meanwhile, is easy to produce and is already grown all over the country. Just infuse alfalfa with these proteins and start harvesting. Alfalfa can produce five crops a year, Velozzi said, you just let it grow, mow it, then let the same crop grow again—like mowing the grass, almost.
That’s a lot of bio-detail for a supercar, which needs more than just a body and chassis.
“I’ve done a lot of market research, when it comes to the people that will buy this car,” Velozzi said. “What they want is to have a V12.”
Specifically, Velozzi wants to put in a naturally aspirated V12 and a six-speed manual transmission. He named the sources for these powertrain units to me, and they are exactly what you or I would want if we were building this. But he asks that I not name them publicly until a deal has been finalized, which it has not.
The shape was designed by Roberto Velozzi himself and Art Center alum Rich Overcash.
In fact, there is no prototype yet, not even a 1:43-scale model. But he did hand me a one-foot-by-one-foot piece of the spider-silk material and it did, indeed, feel lightweight and strong. I stood on it and it didn’t break. Is that enough to fill out your order form?
Maybe it is.
One thing that separates Velozzi from any number of hypercar dreamers with computer images of their supercars is that he’s not looking for financial backing. He has that. And shortly, maybe, he will have the drivetrain.
But, as any number of supercar/hypercar dreamers who have gone before him have already found out, even the most simple “car” has something like 30,000 parts, and all 30,000 have to work. Even in a revolutionary hypercar with spider-silk body and chassis, the door knob pulls have to actually open the doors.
Things like that.
Velozzi says a working, driving car is at least four to five years out. So he’s a little realistic.
Will he make it? Will we all be driving around in spider-silk supercars while spider-silk artificial hearts are beating in our chests underneath our spider-silk driving suits?
Who knows? But it’d sure be fun to find out. And at least now we know what a kilodalton is, so there’s that.