The Body Armor of the Future

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted January 17, 2007

On the nasty battlefields in the Middle East, a soldier’s best friend these days is less his rifle and more likely his body armor. Because without his protective gear, a soldier’s perilous life becomes even more dangerous.

But although the current use of body armor has dropped the ratio of the numbers killed to the numbers wounded to a record 13% (vs. 25% in Vietnam), there is always room for improvement.

According to a recent military study of 93 Marine torso injuries from March 2003 to mid 2005, up to 80% of those fatalities could have been prevented. The study found that more protection on the chest, sides, and shoulder areas for those Marines might have made the difference between life and death.

Needless to say, it is a set of facts that is not lost on the higher-ups.

"As we find the battlefield changed, we constantly try to enhance the survivability and mobility of the American soldier," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce in commenting on the study. "Throughout the fielding of body armor to our soldiers, improvements have been made and continue to be made."

Critical to these efforts, however, is weight. After all, when improvements to the armor become so heavy that they limit mobility, its life-saving effects end up being limited. Because despite its importance, soldiers often choose not use the equipment once it becomes too burdensome.

But the answer to this problem in trade-offs may be close at hand. It’s a unique type of nanotechnology called shear thickening fluid (STF).

Under active development for five years now, STFs are special materials with nano-particles that exhibit properties associated with both liquids and solids.

Sometimes referred to as "liquid armor," these nanomaterials are both flexible and fluid under normal conditions, but adopt a rigid and less penetrable quality when hit. This feature, like that of existing body armor, spreads the impact of the projectile over a greater surface area, making it less lethal. The key, of course, is that it does so while adding little extra weight.

 

Developed by the University of Delaware in conjunction with the Army Research Lab, these new life saving materials may soon find their way onto the battlefields. Under a deal completed last year production is now underway. Armor Holdings (AH:NYSE) has been chosen as the sole commercial provider of this protective technology and anticipates fielding these new products soon.

"Going back to the Middle Ages, developing armor has involved a constant balance between the need for protection and the need for comfort, flexibility, and light weight," said Dr. Tony Russell, the Chief Technology officer for Armor Holdings. "Rarely do the words ‘flexible’ and ‘armor’ get used in the same sentence, but this new technology has the potential to unlock entirely new and better solutions that will leapfrog to the next generation of armor and life-saving equipment."

Extensive testing of the new material has revealed exactly how important this advance can be. When treated with STFs, a conventional ballistic fabric can resist penetration from an ice pick that would easily penetrate untreated fabric. Other tests have shown that the treated fabric reduces the blunt force trauma from high energy ballistic impacts. And treating these fabrics has no effect on the look, feel and weight of the garment.

Uses for these new STF fabrics include a wide range of products such as body armor, vehicle armor, helmets, gloves and bomb blankets to protect not only our soldiers, but law enforcement officials also.

But as important as this fabric is to those that protect us, it also carries with it a variety of civilian uses.

In fact, a British-based company called d30 has used a variant of the technology to produce a range of protective athletic gear. Like the body armor, these products flow with you as you move, but lock together on impact, lessening the force of the energy.

The company has made huge inroads into the lucrative extreme sports markets. Skiers, mountain bikers and skateboarders are all increasingly drawn to these new protective products.

Says CEO Richard Palmer, "Originally, the athletes didn’t want to even try it. Now they aren’t racing without it."

Whether it’s protecting athletes from injury or saving the lives of U.S. servicemen and women, the use of these dynamic fabrics has only just begun. In the future, entire sets of clothing may be made of these life-saving materials, giving body armor an entirely new look. And when it does, battlefield survivability will take a giant leap forward.

 

Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,

 

Steve Christ, Editor 

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