Spiders, though nightmarish to some, might be part of a breakthrough in materials science and could soon be central to the development of new types of bulletproof vests and prosthetic limbs.

The U.S. Army and UCSB physics researchers have collaborated in search of a protein only found in dragline spider silk, the silk a spider weaves when it suspends itself. For the last year and a half, UCSB physics researchers Helen Hansma and Emin Oroudjev have been using atomic force microscopes to examine the silk in order to create a model of this special protein.

“What is unusual about the protein fibers is that they are potentially stronger than steel, but also flexible and lightweight,” Oroudjev said.

The UCSB Physics Dept. was chosen by the U.S. Army to guide the research because few other locations in the world have a reputation such as UCSB’s for experience in the field of atomic force microscopy, the use of these specialized microscopes to examine materials on a molecular level.

“No money was exchanged between the military and the university,” Oroudjev said. “Our interest is what inspired us to carry through with the research.”

The ultimate goal for the study is to one day have the ability to mass-produce the fibers to make such items as lighter weight bulletproof vests and stronger tethers.

“Once a way to mass-produce these fibers is found, the applications will be nearly unlimited,” Oroudjev said.

From medical use to extra durable fabric, these fibers could end up replacing plastics and cloth, the researchers said. This non-synthetic material has such beneficial characteristics as being long-lasting as well as not releasing toxic waste during production.

Scientists are currently searching for other ways to grow the protein for research as well as practical applications. As of now, researchers can genetically engineer goats to produce small amounts of the protein in their milk. However, the cost-intensive and inefficient nature of the procedure makes the process unfeasible for future commercial applications.

Harvesting from spiders would also pose a problem when extracting a large quantity of the material because of the difficulty of maintaining a lot of spiders. The process would take a long time to produce only a small quantity of the protein.

“The spiders are aggressive,” Oroudjev said of the tedious cultivating process, “and end up killing each other when kept in close quarters.”