New Earth-penetrating shock-absorbing materials could stop supersonic impacts

Researchers have created a new synthetic biological material that can stop supersonic impacts. It could have many practical applications, such as next-generation body armor.

Scientists have created and patented groundbreaking new shock-absorbing materials that could revolutionize the defense and planetary science sectors. This feat was achieved by a team from the University of Kent led by Professors Ben Goulet and Jane Hiscock.

Named TSAM (Talin Shock Absorbing Materials), this new protein-based family represents the first known example of a SynBio (or synthetic biology) material capable of absorbing the impacts of supersonic projectiles. It opens the door to the development of the next generation of body armor and projectile capture materials to enable the study of hypervelocity effects in space and the upper atmosphere (astrophysics).

Professor Ben Gault explained: “Our work on the talin protein, which is a natural shock absorber for cells, has shown that this molecule contains a series of binary switch domains that open under tension and refold again once the tension is reduced. This response to force gives talin its molecular shock absorbing properties. “, protecting our cells from the effects of large changes in strength. When we polymerized talin into TSAM, we found that the shock-absorbing properties of talin monomers impart the material with incredible properties.”

The team went on to demonstrate the real-world application of TSAMs, subjecting this hydrogel material to hypersonic impacts of 1.5 km/s (3,400 mph)—a speed faster than the impact of particles in space on both natural and man-made objects (typically >1 km/h). s) and the muzzle velocities of firearms – which typically range from 0.4–1.0 km/s (900–2,200 mph). Moreover, the team discovered that TSAM can not only absorb the impact of basalt particles (about 60 micrometers in diameter) and larger pieces of aluminum fragments, but also sustain these projectiles after impact.

Current body armor tends to consist of a ceramic face reinforced with a fibre-reinforced composite, which is heavy and cumbersome. Also, while this armor is effective at deflecting bullets and shrapnel, it does not block the kinetic energy that could lead to blunt force trauma behind the armor. Furthermore, this type of armor is often irreversibly damaged after impact, due to the compromised structural integrity, preventing further use. This makes the incorporation of TSAM into new armor designs a potential alternative to these traditional technologies, providing a lighter, longer-lasting armor that also protects the wearer from a wide range of injuries including those caused by trauma.

In addition, the ability of TSAMs to capture and store projectiles after impact makes them applicable in the aerospace sector, where there is a need for energy dissipation materials to enable efficient collection of space debris, space dust, and micrometeorites for further scientific study. Furthermore, these captured projectiles facilitate space equipment design, improving astronaut safety and the longevity of costly space equipment. Here TSAMs could provide an alternative to industry-standard aerogels – which may melt due to the high temperature caused by the impact of projectiles.

Professor Gene Hiscock said: “This project arose from an interdisciplinary collaboration between basic biology, chemistry and materials science, which has resulted in the production of this amazing new class of materials. We are very excited about the potential localization capabilities of TSAMs to solve real-world problems. This is something we’re actively researching with the support of new collaborators in the defense and aerospace sectors.”

Reference: “Next Generation Protein-Based Materials Capture and Preserve Projectiles from Supersonic Impacts” by Jack A. Dolan, Luke S. Ellisbrook, Karen Baker, Ian R. Jolt, Nov. 29, 2022, Available here. bioRxiv.
doi: 10.1101/2022.11.29.518433

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