US’ AFRL-led team exploring synthetic muskox wool in military garments

Using synthetic muskox wool keratin fibres, also known as qiviut, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is working on a creative project to create military-grade uniforms. The AirForce Life Cycle Management Centre, Cornell University, Ohio-based contractor UES, Inc., and the Palmer Muskox Farm in Alaska have all collaborated on the project. The Office of Naval Research, AFRL chief scientists, and AFRL Core Programmes have all provided money for the study.

Initial research done by the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory and the 711th Human Performance Wing indicates that qiviut fibres offer better thermal insulating qualities than conventional merino wool cold-weather clothing. According to a  piece written for AFRL, the team wants to develop a material that is stronger, lighter, and more environmentally friendly from Gail L. Forbes.

“Pilots may have to make water landings, land on frozen tundra, or land on ice when conducting cold-climate operations in Arctic regions like Alaska. There are many different options.

Therefore, in the event of unanticipated isolation, we require a textile with many functions, something that does more than just keep us warm, according to Dr. Nancy Kelley-Loughnane, research team leader in the biomaterials division of the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

The idea of synthesising muskox wool keratin fibres is also being investigated by the researchers. This would help with supply chain concerns, support the US textile industry, and advance biotechnology research programmes.

The 711th Human Performance Wing’s research biomedical engineer, Dr. Mark Tyler Nelson, pointed out that conventional insulating materials like merino wool and goose down have issues with sustainability and usability. The goal is to create a fabric that is lightweight even when wet, provides thermal insulation, and has quick-drying, moisture-wicking characteristics.

To lessen reliance on other countries, the researchers are also thinking on ways to keep textile manufacture for military uniforms in the US. However, because there are so few muskoxen left, it is expensive to source qiviut, making the synthetic method necessary.

The team’s current goal is to replicate qiviut using E. coli bacteria that have muskox fibre proteins expressed in them. The desired textile product might then be created by combining the synthetic material with already-existing polymers, such nylon.

The ultimate objective is to produce an environmentally sustainable, next-generation textile with higher quality and accessibility. As the study goes further, the team aims to partner with the textile industry to scale up keratin protein production.

“I’m a big fan of biology for its complexity. I think that’s probably why we’re all doing this. It’s a field that is just unparalleled in its intricacy. While this research is still in a very early state, what I am most excited about is its potential to inform the next generation of insulative materials that can actually contribute to solving a problem,” said Dr. Pat Dennis, senior research biologist in the biomaterials branch.


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