Features Thailand Materials

Japanese biotech startup to mass produce fiber from spider silk for commercial use

12, Feb. 2020

Photo by drmakete lab from Pexels
Photo by drmakete lab from Pexels

By Takeshi Suga

BANGKOK, NNA - Japanese biotech startup Spiber Inc. is preparing to start mass production in Thailand next year of an environmentally-friendly, synthetic fiber made from spider silk, a material considered stronger than steel and more elastic than nylon.

The startup makes its “Brewed Protein” brand fiber through a fermentation process that doesn’t rely on petroleum or other nonrenewable resources. Spiber hopes to sell the fiber eventually for commercial use in apparel, transport, construction, artificial hair and medical devices.

Spiber, based in Tsuruoka city in northeastern Japan, has been developing the material since 2007. If mass production at Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate in Rayong Province, southeast of Bangkok, can offset earlier costs, Spiber expects the fiber to be used for an array of clothing within five years.

The material is biodegradable, meaning it can help limit use of plastics that cause global marine pollution.

In a joint project with Japanese sportswear manufacturer Goldwin Inc., Spiber sold a T-shirt in June made 82.5 percent from cotton and 17.5 percent from its structured protein mixed. In December, it came out with its “Moon Parka” jacket using the new material for its outer fabric. It sold 50 jackets.

“Moon Parka” jacket (Photo courtesy of Spiber)
“Moon Parka” jacket (Photo courtesy of Spiber)

T-shirts cost 25,000 yen each ($228) and the jackets 150,000 yen apiece before tax, both relatively expensive compared with similar products of oil origin. The cost of producing “Brewed Protein” is expected to fall after the Thai plant starts up.

Textile consumption is declining in Japan because of depopulation but rising globally at 4 percent per year, Spiber founding president Kazuhide Sekiyama said. Global consumption will reach 200 million tons per year in 2050, up from 90 million tons now.

Most textile production requires oil, but Sekiyama said he hopes to “meet 15-20 percent of textile demand with man-made protein in the future.”

The company picked Thailand for its first mass manufacturing plant because it has biomass resources such as glucose from cassava and sugar, Spiber (Thailand) Ltd. director Keisuke Morita said. He also noted relatively low plant construction costs, stable supplies of electricity and water and a concentration of car parts manufacturers. Automakers might buy various plastic parts and cushions for seats made from Spiber’s materials, he added.

Spiber (Thailand) Ltd. Director Keisuke Morita talks in an interview with NNA on Nov. 7, 2019. (NNA)
Spiber (Thailand) Ltd. Director Keisuke Morita talks in an interview with NNA on Nov. 7, 2019. (NNA)

Spiber will initially focus on selling its products to automakers and apparel manufacturers, both large markets, Morita said. Oil-based raw materials, synthetic fiber for apparel and fiber-reinforced plastics for motor vehicles, are more widely used today.

Factory construction began in July toward completion this year. Spiber plans to begin automated commercial production in 2021 with about 50 workers.

The company has not disclosed the cost to make its material, and Morita said it is unclear so far whether its material “has competitive power” against polypropylene fiber production cost at several hundred yen per kilogram, Morita said.