The next generation of body armor might be liquid. Both BAE Systems and the Army Research Laboratories along with the University of Delaware are working on turning shear-thickening fluids (STF) into body armor. The concept of using the non-Newtonian fluids as a means to enhance armor while staying flexible at other times is not new but actually putting it into action is a separate and more difficult problem.
About two years BAE Systems demonstrated the difference between a bullet striking Kevlar armor versus STF-treated armor and the results were impressive. “A video shows researchers at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Center testing the material by firing bullets from a 9mm handgun into 10 layers of Kevlar combined with the liquid armor and then 31 layers of untreated Kevlar.” Not only is the armor’s reaction lesser, the overall width of the layers is 45 percent thinner.
What makes STF so powerful applied to armor is that it has both solid and liquid properties. It can flow and isn’t hard or restrictive. But when something strikes it, the molecules bind together and react as a solid, instantly forming a single plate and transferring the energy across a large area. The STF shatters if enough force is applied; after shattering, it returns to a liquid and flows back together.
Not only is it self-mending, it’s lighter than existing ceramic plates, again by about half. The fact that it can be worn not just in places that hold plates is also a huge improvement over existing body armor.
The problem with early designs is that like a liquid, it’s hard to make wearable. And when it’s not laying flat it makes a bad shield. That’s where the Army Research Laboratories (ARL) and the University of Delaware comes in.
With the help of the university scientists, researchers at the ARL have developed a type of armor fiber that is impregnated with STF. The armor is just as flexible as any Kevlar or other modern armor materials, but far more effective at stopping things. Not just bullets, either. Seeing a sheet of cloth bend an icepick is no laughing matter.
The applications of this sort of armor reach much further than just military uses. Ballistic materials made with STF, if inexpensive enough, will no doubt work their way into every sector of first-responder civil service. Because of the properties of the armor, it may be possible to make uniforms out of STF armor.
Would you wear non-Newtonian body armor if it looked just like regular clothes?