Nanotech armor could replace Kevlar and steel in soldier protection

A recent breakthrough by Army-funded researchers could lead to new materials that could create lightweight bulletproof vests, blast shields and more for soldiers of the future.

Tests at the Soldier Nanotechnology Institute, an Army-sponsored research center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that polymers patterned into “lattice-like” structures using nanotechnology can withstand greater forces than Kevlar or steel.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Materials showed that the nanotechnology material was able to prevent penetration of objects and was “more effective” at blocking penetration than traditional materials.

Army Times spoke with an ISN program manager, who explained that the lightweight material, which has been lab-tested to withstand high impacts, could be more effective than traditional armor and protective materials because it has many layers of material in a smaller space.

The paper on the uses of nanotechnology was co-authored by scientists and engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology and the Swiss university ETH Zurich.

To explain the process in detail, ISN Programme Manager, Dr James Burgess, used the example of motorcycle helmet protection.

A helmet has a hard outer shell that can withstand a certain amount of impact before it breaks, but if the same shell contains many smaller shell layers, each layer and the spaces between them provide even greater resistance.

This isn’t so easy to do with materials like steel or Kevlar, but tiny nanotechnology techniques are enabling new approaches to building such structures, he said.

Dr. Carlos Portela shared with Army Times how he makes that work using a light-sensitive material called “photoresist,” which conforms to a shape based on being hit with light, such as a laser.

“The technique is essentially 3D printing at the nanoscale, where a focused laser traces in three dimensions inside a droplet of photoresist, locally solidifying the material in the process, until the entire structure is printed,” Portela said.

The key to the new process the researchers tested, he said, is that it allows designers to “produce any 3D shape imaginable at a level never before achieved,” meaning they can create materials that are stiffer and stronger than traditional manufacturing methods.

Research is currently underway to make helmets and bulletproof vests lighter using new materials, constructions and other methods, and Burgess said this approach could provide even greater protection in an even lighter package.

“Increasing protection while reducing the weight soldiers carry is an overarching theme in our research,” he said.

While the newly developed technologies aren’t ready for prime time or combat deployment just yet, the lab-level research is giving scientists and designers plenty to work with in the future.

“The knowledge gained from this research could potentially provide design principles for ultra-lightweight, impact-resistant materials.” [for use in] “It is an efficient armor material, protective coating and blast shielding that is desirable for defense and space applications,” said co-author Julia R. Greer, PhD, professor of materials science, mechanics and medical engineering at California Institute of Technology, who produced the material.

One hurdle, Burgess says, is scaling up production: These are tiny materials that need to be produced in large quantities to be useful for field applications.

But this first step is encouraging.

“Nanostructured materials hold real promise as shock mitigation materials,” Portela said. “There’s still a lot we don’t know, but we’re on the path to answering these questions and opening the door to a wide range of applications.”

*Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Carlos Portela and to clarify that the Soldier Nanotechnology Institute program is housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War.

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