Magazine article National Defense

New Materials Offer Improved Armor

Magazine article National Defense

New Materials Offer Improved Armor

Article excerpt

Roadside bombs have taken a heavy toll of life and limb in the wars of the last decade, underscoring the need for blast protection regardless of whether troops are on foot or in a vehicle. But a full suit of medieval armor made from ballistic ceramic is not practical for negotiating a modern battlefield, if that would work at all.

The rapid fielding of mine-resistant ambushed protected vehicles helped keep mounted troops safe by increasing the armor and raising ground clearance compared to other troop carriers. The hulking trucks have saved lives, but they are cumbersome, don't perform well off road and guzzle gas.

With metal and ceramics, there is a direct correlation between weight and protection. The more steel or aluminum in a vehicle hull, the better protection it offers. But whether it is a vehicle or a ballistic vest, more material adds more weight and all the disadvantages that come with it.

Weighing down soldiers with personal protective gear is a particular concern. Armor must deflect bullets, blasts and shrapnel without impeding a soldier's movement or weighing him or her down.

Technology is progressing to where polymers and plastics can provide equal or better protection than metals or materials like Kevlar at a fraction of the weight, said Shitij Chabba, global life protection director for DSM Dyneema.

"We can take existing applications and reduce the weight tremendously," Chabba said. "If we can make it stronger and stronger, the higher-strength fiber translates into a higher ballistic performance. We can then give our customers like the Army a choice. They can either keep the same weight with very high performance or they can keep the performance at the current level and drop the weight dramatically."

Dyneema is a proprietary ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene that can be formed into flexible cloth-like materials or compressed into hard pieces that can then be molded into nearly any shape such as helmets, conformal chest plates or vehicle door panels.

The Army's enhanced combat helmet, which soldiers began wearing in fiscal year 2013, is made of a similar material produced by Ceradyne Inc., based in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Dyneema is at merely 40 percent of its theoretical strength, Chabba said. Every step of the process--making the polymer, stretching it into a fiber and creating protective products--is being fine tuned to increase that performance, said Christian Widder-shaven, Dyneema's vice president of marketing and sales.

"We still have a long way to go" with improving its strength, Wid-dershoven said. "When you look to existing materials that are now used--like steel, or aramid [synthetic fibers] like Kevlar--there's not too much more that can be done. They have been developed for a long time."

Aramid fibers in general are at their peak performance, Wid-dershoven said.

The Army this year released a request for proposals for the Soldier Protection System that will incorporate soft and hard armor into a full-body combat suit. The Army is seeking materials that reduce weight while maximizing functionality and ergonomics while providing "ballistic, blast, blunt impact, fragmentation and flame protection."

The Army plans to award a low-rate initial production contract for SPS in fiscal year 2015.

Dyneema is following a two-path innovation strategy to provide the Army with the materials it needs. …

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