Is the era of Kevlar’s dominance of body armor over? Kevlar fiber made by DuPont has been a mainstay of U.S. military body armor and helmets since the 1980s. Nomex and Twaron are similar to Kevlar. They belong to the aramid family of synthetic fibers.
But now the era of Kevlar and other aramid fibers for U.S. troops may be ending.
U.S. Army-funded researchers at an institute affiliated with MIT, have made a breakthrough that may lead to a dense and lightweight new 3D-printed nanotech polymer material that could yield lightweight body armor, blast shields, and other protective gear for American troops.
Army Times reports that:
Testing at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies [ISN], an Army-sponsored research center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed a polymer patterned in a “lattice-like” structure using nanotechnologies could withstand more force than Kevlar or steel.
The paper, recently published in the scientific journal, Nature Materials, showed that the nanotechnology-built material prevented objects from tearing through and was “more efficient” at stopping penetration than traditional materials.
Dr. James Burgess, the program manager for ISN explained that the lightweight material may work better than traditional armor or protective materials because there are more layers of material in a smaller space. It has already been successfully lab tested to take on high impacts. Army Times noted:
Dr. Carlos Portela shared with Army Times how that work is done using light-sensitive material known as “photoresist” that conforms its shape based on light exposure, such as lasers.
“This technique is effectively 3D-printing at the nanoscale, where a tightly-focused laser is traced within a drop of photoresist—in three dimensions—locally solidifying material in the process until the full structure is printed,” Portela said.
A key aspect of this new tech is that designers can “fabricate virtually any imaginable 3D shape” at levels never done before. The material can therefore be stiffer and stronger than using traditional manufacturing methods.
The current focus on lightening helmets and body armor is on creating new materials and configurations, but this 3D printing approach could provide even greater protection in an even lighter package, Burgess said.
While this nanotech fiber and 3D printing isn’t quite ready for fielding, the lab-level research is extremely promising. The Army Times quoted co-author Dr. Julia R. Greer, a professor of materials science, mechanics, and medical engineering at Caltech, whose lab fabricated the material:
The knowledge from this work…could provide design principles for ultra-lightweight, impact-resistant materials [for use in] efficient armor materials, protective coatings, and blast-resistant shields desirable in defense and space applications.
For our troops, let’s hope this new lighter, stronger, nanotech body armor comes soon. ADN