New protein-based armor material can withstand supersonic impacts
The search for next-generation armor materials has regularly led scientists into the realm of nature, where everything from snail shells to sea sponges have inspired some exciting possibilities. Researchers at the University of Kent have followed in these footsteps to developed a protein-based family of synthetic materials that can withstand supersonic impacts and which they see one day finding use in military and space applications.
Like another interesting advance in material science we looked at back in 2016, the team’s creation uses the unique properties of a protein as a starting point. Where that previous example took advantage of a protein’s counter-intuitive compression capabilities, the University of Kent team has drilled into the natural shock-absorbing abilities of a protein called talin, and used it to create a family of hydrogel materials called TSAMs (Talin Shock Absorbing Materials).
“Our work on the protein talin, which is the cells’ natural shock absorber, has shown that this molecule contains a series of binary switch domains which open under tension and refold again once tension drops,” study author Professor Ben Goult explained. “This response to force gives talin its molecular shock absorbing properties, protecting our cells from the effects of large force changes. When we polymerized talin into a TSAM, we found the shock absorbing properties of talin monomers imparted the material with incredible properties.”
In testing, the team’s novel material proved capable of absorbing impacts from projectiles traveling at 1.5 km (0.93 miles) per second, deep in supersonic speed territory which begins at Mach 1 – around 343 m (1,125 ft) per second. The team notes this is much faster than the projectiles you'd expect from a firearm which travel from 0.4 to 1 km (0.24 to 0.62 miles) per second, and faster than most particles whizzing through space, typically in excess of 1 km (0.62 miles) per second.
The shock absorbing abilities were demonstrated against a variety of projectiles, ranging from tiny basalt particles measured in micrometers to bigger chunks of aluminum shrapnel. A useful point of difference compared to traditional body armor materials, according to the team, is that TSAMs preserve these projectiles after the impact. This could make them suitable for the purposes of capturing space debris for the study and development of spacesuits and other protective equipment in the aerospace sector.
The researchers also say these materials have the potential to absorb the kinetic energy from bullets and shrapnel better than current armor materials made of ceramics and fiber-reinforced composites. Integrating the materials into next-generation armor could therefore make them lighter, longer lasting, and offer better protection against blunt trauma.
“We are very excited about the potential translational possibilities of TSAMs to solve real world problems,” said Professor Jen Hiscock. “This is something that we are actively undertaking research into with the support of new collaborators within the defense and aerospace sectors.”
The research, available as a pre-print and not yet peer-reviewed, can be accessed here.
Source: University of Kent