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The Future of Body Armour

Research into making body armour better has fuelled the industry almost from the conception of body armour, and developments like Kevlar are indicative of the direction in which protective clothing is moving. Kevlar was an important development in the field of body armour, because it signalled a move into making body armour lighter, thinner, and more accessible. Research and development can largely be split into two different areas; making armour lighter and thinner, and finding new materials to be used in armour. Making armour lighter and thinner allows it be more comfortable and stronger, while new materials- which take their inspiration from a variety of sources- can allow for completely new concepts of body armour.

Reducing the Size of Armour

Manufacturers of both body armour and body armour materials strive to reduce the size and weight of vests for a number of reasons. The main criticism of body armour has always been its size and weight, ever since the adoption of plate and chainmail in the  early Middle Ages. While the introduction of materials like Kevlar and Dyneema have dramatically reduced these factors, comfort and movement are the main concerns for those wearing body armour. For example, many Police Officers complain of the increase in temperature when wearing body armour, to the point that some do not wear it. Creating stronger materials allows protective plates to be made with fewer layers of fabric, making them lighter and thinner and thus more comfortable. DuPont, the manufacturers of Kevlar, continually look to make their products lighter and thinner, reducing the number of layers needed.

It is not just that the manufacturers of protective materials desire to make armour lighter and thinner - creating a more comfortable and flexible carrier is another important area of research. Protective vests are split roughly into the carrier and the protective plates, and creating a more comfortable carrier is something that certain manufacturers have devoted their research and development to. By making the carrier thinner it can be made more comfortable, and better at regulating temperature- some of SafeGuard’s vests are designed with temperature regulating technologies incorporated that can help keep the wearer cool by drawing moisture away from the body, for example. However, it is important to make sure that the carrier is not so thin that it is uncomfortable, as this would be counter-productive.

Bullet resistant materials can also be used in new and interesting ways, and some research has gone into developing armour that still utilises Kevlar or Dyneema, for example. One instance of this is scaled armour, which creates armour using smaller interlocking Kevlar plates in the style of medieval scaled armour. This takes its inspiration from fish and reptile scales in a concept known as ‘Biomimetics’, which has influenced products such as Velcro. However, as technology like 3D printing becomes more accessible researchers can gain a better understanding of how these natural armours work and how they can be adapted to make modern body armour.

Finding New Materials

Another important area of research for body armour manufacturers, in addition to making materials thinner and lighter, is finding new materials to use in body armour. These new materials come from a wide and diverse range, and are fuelled by research into metals, woods and even liquids as potential options for future body armour. These may sound fanciful, but the reality is that they may soon be viable options for bullet proof vests. Liquid armour in particular has taken a dramatic leap towards becoming a practical alternative to materials like Kevlar and Dyneema. A new non-Newtonian liquid known as STF (Shear-Thickening Fluid) has been created that hardens upon impact and disperse energy from this point, giving it incredible protective capabilities. Whereas materials like Kevlar have an indentation at the point of impact where the vest deforms, STF does not. This means that while traditional materials  can cause injury to the wearer , Moratex, the company behind STF, claims to have eliminated 100% of the threat of injury to the sternum caused by indentation. This means that any bruising or surface damage will be negated completely in armour using STF.

Graphene is a more ‘traditional’ basis for body armour, as it has a closer parallel to metals and plastics. Nevertheless, it still offers incredible benefits over current materials, such as flexibility and a very high strength-to-weight ratio. Graphene is made of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb shape that are then assembled into a sheet and built up in layers much like contemporary aramid-based body armour is. Graphene works by stretching at the point of impact before cracking outward across the material. Having several layers of the material will help temper the negative effects of this cracking process, as well as providing additional protection. Graphene is unique in that sound waves can travel three times faster through it than they can through steel. This means that multiple layers will dissipate the energy of an impact much more effectively than current materials are capable of.

Another interesting area of research is into Nanocellulose, which uses wood pulp to create a thin, light and strong material that can rival Kevlar. This is because of its very high strength-to-weight ratio, which is a pre-requisite of bullet resistant materials. One of the added benefits of Nanocellulose is the relatively simple manufacturing process which does not require the specialised equipment that other materials do. However, like many of the other ‘future materials’, the manufacturing process is still rather expensive, and there are concerns over Nanocellulose’s impact on the environment which has restricted its development.