I’m no expert on bulletproof vests, but I’ve watched enough law enforcement television shows to convince me that they’re built for safety rather than comfort. Breakthrough research from the University of South Carolina suggests soldiers and law enforcement officers of the future might be more casually dressed. The scientists have taken an everyday T-shirt and reinforced it with the boron carbide – an extremely hard ceramic used in bullet proof vests and tanks – to produce a UV protective, lightweight and flexible body armor solution.

The scientists used plain, white T-shirts which they dipped into a boron solution. The strips were later removed and heated in an oven. The heating changed the cotton fibers into carbon fibers - which then reacted with the boron solution to produced boron carbide (which is the third hardest material known behind cubic boron nitride and diamond).

The resulting fabric was lightweight and although it was tougher and stiffer than T-shirt material it was still flexible enough to be bent – making an improvement in the restraining, heavy boron-carbide plates used for body armor and bulletproof vests. The material was also found to block out almost all ultraviolet rays.

"This is a true breakthrough," said Dr. Xiaodong Li, USC College of Engineering and Computing Distinguished Professor in Mechanical Engineering. “The boron-carbide nanowires we synthesized keep the same strength and stiffness of the bulk boron carbide but have super-elasticity. They are not only lightweight but also flexible. We should be able to fabricate much tougher body armors using this new technique. It could even be used to produce lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircrafts.”

The USC research team is collaborating with scientists from China and Switzerland.