A team of researchers at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, have used a protein called talin, which functions as “the cell’s natural shock absorber,” to create a new damping material capable of stopping projectiles traveling at supersonic speeds without destroying them in the process.
The development of materials to improve the effectiveness of armor is not an exclusive activity of the armed forces of the world. Shock-absorbing materials also have benefits in other fields. In the aerospace industry, they will be essential as we continue to expand our presence in space, where even tiny particles moving at supersonic speeds can cause significant damage to spacecraft. Even other researchers may benefit from advances in this field, particularly those conducting experiments with high-velocity projectiles that must eventually be stopped safely.
Current design of armor and projectile-stopping materials uses a mix of layered ceramic and fiber-based components, which are effective at preventing a high-velocity object from passing directly through them, but end up transferring a large amount of the kinetic energy of the projectile. on the armored vehicle or person, often resulting in non-fatal injuries. These materials also tend to be destroyed in the process, requiring replacement after each use. This new research brings us one step closer to solving the unique challenges of shock-absorbing material development.
At the molecular level, the talin has a structure that unfolds under stress to dissipate energy and then folds back again, leaving it ready to absorb shock over and over again, keeping cells resilient against external forces. When the protein was combined with other ingredients and polymerized into a TSAM (or Talin cushioning material), those unique shock-absorbing properties were maintained.
To test the effectiveness of the TSAMs, the researchers subjected them to impacts from basalt particles (about 60 µM in size, or about the diameter of a human hair) and then, larger aluminum shrapnel, traveling at 1.5 kilometers per second. That’s more than 3,300 miles per hour, and three times faster than the speed of a 9mm bullet fired from a handgun. The impact of the particles was not only completely absorbed by the TSAM material, but the particles themselves were not destroyed in the process.
The size of these test materials means that the particles were not imparting as much energy to the TSAMs as a projectile fired from something resembling a tank would, but it helps demonstrate their potential. Eventually, the researchers are confident that the hydrogel could be incorporated into lighter body armor for soldiers that better absorb the energy of an impact, while retaining its shock-absorbing capabilities, even after saving a life.
Potentially, it would be even more useful for the aerospace industry, both for spacecraft protection and for research into space debris, dust, and micrometeoroids, which could be captured without being destroyed in the process. Of course, captured micrometeroids would be easier to study than a handful of decimated dust. But far more important to regular Gizmodo readers is how this new material can be incorporated into smartphone cases, making our expensive investments as durable and resilient as the nearly indestructible Nokia phones of years ago.
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