How do you stop a projectile that’s smaller than a grain of sand, but traveling several kilometers per second?
Your best bet would be to consult with researchers at Rice University. They are currently performing experiments with a new super-resistant ballistic shield that can completely stop bullets in their tracks.
Ned Thomas, dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice, does a fairly decent job of explaining the complicated details to the layman audience (though if you’re feeling up for it you can read the official scientific report at Nature Communications). What makes the material so tough is that the engineers are able to manipulate the material at the nano-scale to create incredibly thin layers of rubber-like and glass-like materials.
The result is a super-strong material that can stop bullets better than steel, but is about one-seventh the weight.
This material could greatly benefit the satellites and jet turbines, but what we’re most interested in is how it could effect body armor. If this material could be used to stop meteors, just imagine what it could do to stop bullets!
The circular block that Thomas shows off give us a pretty good idea of the material’s potential. The polymer is a bit too thick for body armor, but it’s a great step in the right direction. At the very least, the transparent material would make an excellent ballistic windshield.
What’s particularly interesting about the polymer is that it seals the entryway behind the bullet, all without suffering any damage to the surrounding material. That means that you can pepper this material with bullets, and the objects structural integrity will remain more-or-less intact. The material won’t crack, shatter or warp.
Rice University scientists wanted to examine the material under a microscope, but the only problem with such an ultra-tough material that cutting it could take days. They solved that problem by examining a similar material, polystyrene-polydimethylsiloxane diblock-copolymer (what a mouthful). Rice News explains, “The results showed several expected deformation mechanisms and the unexpected result that for sufficiently high velocities, the layered material melted into a homogeneous liquid that seemed to help arrest the projectile and, like the polymer, seal its entry path.”
Basically, the material melts during the bullet’s entry. Not only is the liquid super-resistant, but it also immediately cools to create an air-tight seal behind the bullet. Pretty cool, eh?
MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies hopes that this material could be the future of body armor. Thomas hopes to experiment with other materials, like boron nitride, carbon nanotube-reinforced composites and other fancy science-fiction materials. One of these materials could help scientists develop the body armor of tomorrow, a material so cheap, tough, and light-weight that it could make U.S. soldiers practically bullet-proof.