The battle to make lighter life-saving body armor-BBC News

2021-10-21 06:46:09 By : Mr. Victor He

Author: Bernd Debusmann Jr Business Correspondent

Rory Copinger-Symes retired from the Royal Marines last year and joined in 1983.

During his decades of service, he has seen tremendous changes in the equipment he received, especially the body armor.

"The body armor has been evolving in my 37 years," said the retired brigadier general. "It becomes more effective, but frankly, it becomes heavier, which is a problem."

In the past few decades, modern body armor is made of synthetic fibers (such as Kevlar) and metal or ceramic plates (called trauma plates).

Although good at deterring bullets and other threats, this combination is heavier than previous materials, including multiple layers of ballistic nylon and sometimes fiberglass panels.

Although Mr. Copinger-Symes said that the Kevlar body armor is "not particularly uncomfortable," it also has disadvantages.

"Obviously, wearing it in a hot climate is not pleasant," he explained. "Due to the weight of the body armor, we tend to restrict other items we carry-but weapons and ammunition are essential."

The weight and comfort of body armor are common to all armed forces.

The fully equipped U.S. Army modified outer tactical vest is equipped with four bullet-proof panels, collar and groin protection, and weighs approximately 30 pounds (14 kg).

This is much heavier than the Vietnam Era vest, which weighed only 8 pounds (3.6 kg).

Every additional pound of body armor adds to the already huge burden of modern soldiers.

American infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes carry up to 100 pounds (45 kg) of equipment with weapons, food, batteries, and other equipment—even the strongest soldiers are a burden.

Over time, bearing such weight can lead to injuries. In the United States, statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that between 2003 and 2009, the number of veterans retiring due to musculoskeletal diseases increased by more than 10 times.

Kevlar fiber is highly regarded for its strength and economy, and has been the most common material in armor for more than 40 years.

But it is being replaced by a new material called ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE).

It derives power from its very long molecules, and modern production techniques take advantage of this feature. Some brands of UHMWPE are advertised as being 15 times stronger than steel under the same weight.

Although early versions of these materials have been available for decades, it is only in recent years that they have gained market acceptance — and have become the choice of many forces around the world.

However, for manufacturers of body armor, there is an additional complication.

Protecting the user is more than just catching a bullet or a piece of shrapnel. The armor must also prevent the energy from these projectiles from being transferred to the wearer.

At present, new materials are inefficient in this regard. The vest may stop bullets, but the wearer may still die.

The common solution is to add more polyethylene and other materials to try to prevent this trauma, which of course increases weight.

Colin Meizer, head of explosions and ballistics at Colorado-based Skydex, said that increasingly complex materials will improve the situation.

For example, the ceramic plates installed in the body armor are getting better and better, and newer versions use materials such as boron carbide.

Mr. Metzer said: "Raw materials are constantly being developed, and then can be re-integrated into body armor to improve performance while reducing weight."

Even a modest improvement in weight or protection, preferably both, can make a life-saving difference for soldiers or police officers.

People who bear more weight will become slower and less agile, which is a problem for soldiers who try to climb steep hills or cross rivers quickly.

"The ability to quickly move to a safe zone may be a matter of life and death," Mr. Metzer pointed out. "The best case for any fighter is not to be hit at all."

In the long run, many body armor experts believe that nanotechnology that manipulates materials on the molecular or supramolecular scale may mean extremely light body armor, more like clothes.

US Army researchers said that in the future, thin body armor similar to spandex may be possible.

Researchers working in this field include Alan Dalton, a professor at the University of Sussex, who is the chief scientific adviser of the nanotechnology company Advanced Material Development.

Professor Dalton believes that futuristic lightweight materials may mean that other heavy equipment carried by soldiers can be integrated into body armor, turning it into wearable technology that can protect users.

"This means, for example, putting communication equipment such as antennas directly into the infrastructure of textiles or uniforms," ​​he said.

In addition, Professor Dalton said that future systems may even be able to change the performance of soldiers in thermal imaging systems.

"It is possible for me to reduce the apparent temperature to close to the background temperature. If someone uses a thermal imaging camera, I will only blend into the background," Professor Dalton said.

He likened this feature to the creatures in the sci-fi series of "Predator". In these movies, aliens can blend into the background without a thermal footprint.

Back to the real world, retired Brigadier General Rory Copinger-Symes said that this nanotechnology can make a big difference for service personnel.

"If it can have a built-in antenna, power supply, or maybe all the pockets and things I need-that will make my work easier for the rest of my life."

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