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Dyneema: The world’s lightest, strongest material

Dyneema: The world’s lightest, strongest material Hyperlite Echo II Tarp by Brian Threlkeld in the Sierras, Calfiornia

Exhausted, I dragged the OMM Phantom 20 backpack across the rough face the Silurian sedimentary rocks of Scotland’s Southern Uplands unconcerned for the state of my backpack. I’d been running, well struggling, for 11 hours on the 2015 Original Mountain Marathon. It was now dark and we were scrambling down a pitch-black rocky step. I was broken, scraped, slightly torn. My backpack, not that I’d given it much thought, was fine. It had to be, the OMM is one of the toughest challenges in the UK. No wonder then, they use Dyneema to make the packs. It is, after all, world’s strongest fabric that is said by manufacturers to be 15 times stronger than steel. It has been used to stop bullets, repair human joints, moor oil rigs and make really, really, light waterproof jackets.

A case in point is Black Yak’s Emergency Jacket that won the Gold Award at ISPO, the industry showcase in Munich. South Korean brand Black Yak produced the jacket that weighs only 54 grams, the lightest in the world. It doesn’t have any pockets and should be used exactly as the name suggests. Black Yak’s jacket is not going to replace your three-layer Gore-Tex any time soon, but it highlights the possibilities for Dyneema.

Dyneema, formerly Cuben fibre, has, of course, been used in ultralight outdoors products before, particularly in backpacks from the likes of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, the aforementioned OMM and Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD). It is very lightweight, extremely tough-wearing, soft and hydrophobic. Ron Bell of MLD, Mike St Pierre of Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Gen Shimizu of Yama appear in a film about Dyneema called Ultralight (see below) extolling the virtues of Dyneema.

On ultralight long-distance events such as the TGO Challenge, a two-week coast-to-coast backpack across Scotland, it is Mountain Laurel Designs equipment that many carry. The triumvirate of shelter, sleeping system and pack is often where most weight can be shed, all products – no coincidence – that readily use Dyneema. Gear is often weighed out to the gram – who needs the handle of toothbrush anyway? (Note: no one has used Dyneema for a tooth brush).

Dyneema: The world’s lightest, strongest material
Hyperlite Ultamid by Brian Threlkeld in the Sierras, Calfiornia

Dyneema are now hoping to push the use of the product in more clothing and equipment across the outdoor industry. The recently-launched ‘Dyneema Project’ is designed to bring the material to a wider apparel market through collaboration with more brands including as adidas and, curveball, Levi’s who used to reinforce 501 jeans.

Dyneema was discovered in 1963 by Dr Albert Pennings while ‘stirring in a pot’. He noticed that the wisps of polythylene crystals were very long and therefore very strong. It’s since been used to upturn the stranded cruise ship Costa Concordia in Italy and tether satellites in space.

“It’s funny to think it all just started with some stirring in a pot,” said Dr Albert Pennings. By 1968, he was able to pull these wisps out in the form of a thread-like material. “In a sense it was simple: we’d have this string of swollen stuff and we’d hold it over a hot plate and stretch it out with our hands. The solvent would evaporate out, and we were left with a tiny string – a really strong polyethylene fibre.”

However, it wasn’t until 1978, after years of experimentation, that the fibre could be produced on an industrial scale, gaining a patent in 1979. Today, it’s used across many industries with hundreds of applications, but it’s in apparel where the Dyneema Project is focussed… and they are now looking for more brand to collaborate with. Sidetracked will be testing some Dyneema products in the near future. But we can already vouch for OMM’s Phantom 25 – it certainly fared better than me at the end of the Original Mountain Marathon.

Written by Daniel Neilson