How High Technology is Changing the Future of Bullet-Proof Vests
Protective armors and vests have evolved from cumbersome metal armors in the middle ages to synthetic fabrics devised in labs in the 20th century. However, their purpose remains the same, to tackle a bullet. For any material to make a successful anti-ballistic vest it must possess certain properties. Tremendous strength and energy absorption capacity is crucial to help resist the force of a bullet, flexibility bears the impact of a quick travelling bullet, slows it down while keeping it from penetrating; while lightness of weight or low density is vital to make armors comfortable for wearers. Ideal anti-ballistic materials must be characterized along with their high tensile and compressive strength by resistance to thermal degradation as well. Given the lightning speed that bullets travel at and the ever improving technology in ammunition, an anti-ballistic material must be a superlative embodiment of these properties.
In fact, there is no such thing as a bullet-proof vest, instead anti-ballistic protection armors and vests can only be bullet-resistant and each vest maybe designed to tackle certain amount of impact. In spite of the advancements in protective vests, a bullet can still cause harm by splintering, bruising or injuring with its force, such impact is called blunt force trauma.
Professionals like Arsha Consulting who deal with high quality security equipment are constantly on the lookout for advanced technology that can further mitigate bullet-related harm and injuries. While super strong fabrics such as Kevlar, Twaron and Dyneema fibers have defined anti-ballistic protection gear in the last few decades the efforts to find better, lighter and stronger materials that can further cut down any bullet related trauma is ongoing. Not only must protection options be advanced and reliable, but they must also be cost effective to ensure safety is accessible. Keeping these factors in mind here are a few cutting edge materials with the potential to define the future of anti-ballistic wear.
In 2004, researchers extracted graphene from graphite derived from pencil shavings. The new material was a single layer of carbon atoms linked together in a honeycomb. The researchers went on to win a Nobel Prize for physics for their work on graphene, while the substance itself has been hailed as a repository of endless high-tech possibilities for its extraordinary strength. Professor James Hone from the Columbia University is known to have famously said of graphene that, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”
One of the thinnest materials, two hundred times stronger than steel and extremely lightweight – graphene ticked all right boxes in what would make a great anti-ballistic material. Yet, it was impossible to test if these tiny single carbon atoms would withstand bullets.
However, scientist Jae-Hwang Lee from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst formulated a small ballistic test called Laser Induced Projectile Impact Test (LIPIT) that involved firing micrometer size glass bullets less than tenth the size of human hair at 300 layers of graphene. A laser pulse would heat gold filaments in the bullet that vaporized and like gunpowder set the micro-bullet to move at an impressive speed of 3 kms per second. When the bullets hit their target, the graphene sheets stretched considerably into a cone shaped impact mark. It isn’t just the material’s strength, but also the fact that sound waves move three times faster through graphene than through steel that was a promising observation. This would mean that when a bullet hits graphene, its energy is absorbed much faster, slowing it down quicker and dissipating damage better.
Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs)
Carbon has many allotropes or forms. These include graphite, diamond and interesting new materials that like graphene that have gained remarkable popularity in modern research. Like graphene, another one of carbon’s most promising forms believed to have endless futuristic possibilities is Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) which are cylindrical carbon molecules. Lightweight, strong, chemically inert, CNTs embody extraordinary electrical, thermal, optical and chemical properties.
While possessing these properties, applying them to create anti-ballistic materials posed a challenge due to their unthinkably miniscule sizes. However, a team of researchers from the University of Sydney experimented to see if CNTs would hold up to bullets.
They tested single-walled carbon nanotubes by targeting them with tiny bullets made of diamond. The bullets had speeds between 1000 and 3500 m/s. The team then analysed the impact on CNTs. They discovered that the ballistic resistance capacity of a carbon nanotube was highest when the bullets hit a CNT’s centre and a larger tube withstood a higher bullet speed. The team suggested making fibre from nanotubes that could then be weaved into an anti-ballistic fabric much stronger than Kevlar and other conventional bullet resistant materials.
Their high elasticity means a fabric made of carbon nanotubes will not be permanently deformed and will absorb a bullet’s energy while causing as little harm to the wearer.
In fact, sheets of carbon nanotube fabric have already been utilized successfully to design a bullet-proof business suit.
Last year the news of liquid body armor made of a magic material created a buzz. Scientists at a polish company revealed the discovery of a Shear Thickening Fluid (STF) that was flexible and very light in comparison to Kevlar.
The liquid is a non-Newtonian fluid. Which means that Newtonian fluids like water modify their structure according to temperatures, this fluid alters its viscosity under stress. This means when hit by a bullet a vest made of STF turns into a solid as a result of the impact thus protecting the wearer. The scientists claim that STF vest will experience only one centimeter of indentation when hit with a bullet moving at 1,400 feet per second or faster, a better record than Kevlar.
There is extensive research on liquid armors by defence institutions and research agencies around the globe. Apart from STF, there have also been experiments with a magnetorheological fluid (MRF), which when subjected to a magnetic field increases its viscosity to even becoming solid. In the current experiments of liquid armors, Kevlar armors are soaked in these extraordinary liquids.
However, liquid armor experiments are not yet conclusive to gauge their effectiveness in practical use. Researchers are looking at various ways in which these non-Newtonian fluids can be best used in armors and vests.
Bulletproof skin – Spider Silk
Think about how a spider builds its web and waits. Spiders have perfected this art over 400 million years now. The intricate design of its web and the tenacity of spider silk are perfect to intercept and stop anything that flies right into it. As bullet proof vests stop a moving object, a spider web absorbs the energy of a moving prey and traps it.
Spider silk that spider webs are made of is one of the strongest natural fibers and are comparable to the very best synthetic materials created in labs. It is known to be stronger by weight than high-grade steel. Researcher Ann Terry told the BBC, “It’s the best material in the man-made and natural world for absorbing energy. Scaling up a spider web, so the fibre thickness is 5cm across, it could stop a Boeing 747 at speed.”
Its flexibility and strength have meant that the material has been widely researched for various applications and has been touted as a possible new anti-ballistic innovation. However, cracking how such large quantities of this strong silk can be produced is an area of ongoing research.
A few years ago Dutch scientists genetically modified goat’s milk to contain the same protein as found in strong spider silk. This was used to make a skin which was combined with in-vitro human skin to design what they termed as ‘bullet-proof skin or super skin’
In their efforts to mass produce spider silk scientists have also genetically engineered silk worms to produce spider silk. Several parties are interested in the possibilities this material offers in ballistics and industrial purposes.
The conventional materials that have been the primary ingredients in bullet-resistant armors are metals such as steel, titanium, aluminium and its alloys; ceramics mainly used as trauma plates in armors; polyaramid fibres such as Kevlar, other high performance synthetic fibers and yarns, and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylenes. The trailblazing advancement in modern science and technology has made it possible for scientists to explore and experiment with newer radical materials now. The inclusion of nanomaterials such as forms of carbon are an example of the changing course in anti-ballistic armors. Bio-mimicry or the science of being inspired from the natural world to develop materials that imitate strength from nature such as spider silk or dragon skin have also found a place in bullet-proof technology. The unprecedented features that some new materials display make it easy to believe that we are at the cusp of a future we once saw on movie screens or only dreamt of. The possibilities are endless, but time will tell how we use these elements for our optimum safety.
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Elizabeth Raj |Blogger- Arsha Consulting