The race to develop a lighter, more life-saving bulletproof vest

  • By Bernd Debsmann Jr.
  • Business reporter

Image source, Rory Coppinger Symes

Image caption, Brigadier General Rory Coppinger-Symes of the Royal Marines in Afghanistan

Rory Coppinger-Symes enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1983 and left last year.

During his decades of service, he saw dramatic changes in the equipment he was issued, especially bulletproof vests.

“Bulletproof vests have evolved over my 37 years,” the retired brigadier general said. “They’ve become more effective, but frankly, they’ve become heavier, and that’s a problem.”

Over the past few decades, modern bulletproof vests have been made from a combination of synthetic fibers, such as Kevlar, and metal or ceramic plates, known as trauma plates.

This combination is good at stopping bullets and other threats, but it is heavier than previous materials, which included multiple layers of ballistic nylon and sometimes fiberglass boards.

Coppinger-Symes said Kevlar body armor is “not particularly uncomfortable,” but it does have drawbacks.

“It’s obviously not comfortable to wear in hot weather,” he explains, “and the weight of the vests tended to limit other items that could be carried, but weapons and ammunition were essential.”

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Any reduction in the weight of their equipment would be welcomed by frontline troops.

Issues with weight and comfort of bulletproof vests are common to all military forces.

A fully loaded version of the U.S. Army’s Improved Outer Tactical Vest includes four ballistic plates and collar and groin protectors, weighing nearly 30 pounds (14 kg).

This is much heavier than Vietnam War-era vests, which weighed just 8 pounds (3.6 kg).

Every additional pound of bulletproof vest adds to the already enormous burden on the modern soldier.

U.S. infantry soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes carried as much as 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of equipment, including weapons, food, batteries and other gear — a burden for even the healthiest soldiers.

Over long periods of time, carrying such heavy loads can lead to injury: According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, the number of veterans leaving the military with musculoskeletal conditions increased more than tenfold between 2003 and 2009.

Valued for its strength and affordability, Kevlar has been the most popular material used in protective gear for over 40 years.

But it is being replaced by a new material with the unwieldy name of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).

UHMWPE’s strength comes from its extremely long molecules, and modern manufacturing techniques take advantage of this characteristic: some brands of UHMWPE are advertised as being 15 times stronger than the same weight of steel.

While early versions of these materials have been available for decades, it is only in the last few years that they have gained market acceptance and become the choice of many military forces around the world.

Image source, NP Aerospace

Image caption, A bulletproof vest needs to stop a bullet and dissipate the energy.

But there are further complications for bulletproof vest manufacturers.

To protect its user, armor must do more than just stop bullets and shrapnel: it must also prevent the energy of those projectiles from being transferred to the wearer.

Now, new materials aren’t as effective at doing that: a vest might stop a bullet, but it could still kill the wearer.

A common solution is to add polyethylene or other materials to prevent trauma, but of course this adds weight.

Collin Metzer, director of explosives and ballistics at Colorado-based Skydex, said the situation will improve as materials become more sophisticated.

For example, the ceramic plates in bulletproof vests are getting better, with newer versions using materials such as boron carbide.

“Raw materials are continually being developed, and by reintegrating them into the vest we can improve performance while reducing weight,” Metzer said.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, The challenge is finding the right balance between mobility and protection.

Any improvement in weight or protection (ideally both) could save a soldier or police officer’s life.

Carrying a heavy load makes a soldier slower and less agile, which is a problem for soldiers trying to quickly climb a steep hill or cross a river.

“The ability to move quickly to safety is a matter of life and death,” Metzer said. “The best thing for any combatant is to never get hit at all.”

In the longer term, many bulletproof vest experts believe that nanotechnology, which involves manipulating materials at the molecular or supramolecular level, could lead to extremely lightweight bulletproof vests that are more like clothing.

Among the researchers working in this area is Alan Dalton, chief scientific adviser to nanotechnology company Advanced Materials Development and a professor at the University of Sussex.

Dalton believes that future lightweight materials could allow other heavy equipment carried by soldiers to be integrated into bulletproof vests, turning them into wearable technology that can also protect the wearer.

“That means integrating communications equipment, such as antennas, directly into the textile or uniform infrastructure,” he says.

Image source, Jason Alden

Image caption, Alan Dalton argues that nanotechnology is the key to even stronger materials.

What’s more, Dalton said future systems may even be able to change how soldiers appear to thermal imaging systems.

“You can reduce the apparent temperature to something closer to the background temperature, so if someone was using a thermal camera, it would blend in with the background,” Prof Dalton said.

He likens this feature to the aliens in the sci-fi movie Predator series, who are able to blend into the background without being affected by heat at all.

Back in the real world, retired Brigadier General Rory Coppinger Symes says nanotechnology like this could make a big difference to military personnel.

“If we could have all the antennas, power supplies, and pockets built in, it would make things easier for us going forward.”

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