Making a Material Impact

The premise sounds a bit like a cyberadventure Matrix-esque movie: wave motion research that one day could lead to development of a bulletproof vest that senses the speed, angle of approach, and size of an incoming bullet.

And then—the kicker—the material inside the vest instantly changes properties that provides greater shock protection at the exact point of impact.

But this is no sci-fi caper. Rather, this is the work of Nikhil Karanjgaokar, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, who recently received a five-year, $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation to conduct the pioneering research. He is exploring the mechanical and physical properties of granular materials that can alter their shapes or change their original properties to absorb and redirect the force of an incoming bullet or object.

“Object” is the operative word as this research holds promise for a range of industries, including military, construction, and sports. Karanjgaokar says hazard protection gear such as vests and helmets gear will be vastly improved. Shock protection systems can be developed to protect underwater infrastructure in the oil and gas and telecommunications industries.

In fact, he says, underwater missile silos or underground bunkers can be protected from attack, and the technology could be used as a protective covering for buildings or even to protect NASA’s International Space Station.

“I want to design materials that can absorb impact,” he says. “People trying to protect themselves from bullets or shrapnel have used sandbags since before World War II to absorb impacts. I’m working from the same basic principle. How can we create a versatile material to create a barrier against any impact?”

Karanjgaokar just may have found material that transcends the next big-budget flick. 

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