Imagine wearing a bulletproof vest made of … silk?
The organic textile is so surprisingly resistant to penetration by high-speed projectiles that the ancient Chinese, as well as the current Thai law enforcement community both use the low-tech material as their primary body armor.
The material preferred by U.S. body armor manufacturers, and by the men and women their products protect, however, is high-tensile strength-to-weight ratio Kevlar. Five times stronger than steel, since 1970 it’s been the key component of the body armor, vehicle panels, bomb blankets and flak jackets that make dangerous situations survivable for enforcement officials and military personnel.
Protection vs. wearability
Research and development of even more effective and comfortable bullet resistant protection is ongoing in several corners of the globe. A perennial objective is a lighter-weight vest that provides maximum comfort as well as optimal protection. Such vests will require soft and flexible ballistic-resistant materials that also resist the adverse effects of aging, wear and exposure to various environmental factors like humidity, moisture, extreme temperature and ultraviolet light. Eventually, according to the National Institute of Justice website, www.nij.com, such materials could be incorporated into armor designs at threat level IIIA, which provides the highest level of ballistic performance in concealable body armor.
In addition to using better interior materials, other techniques for improving overall performance and comfort, such as changing stitching and layering techniques, and improving exterior material properties are perpetually in the eye of manufacturers.
Chris Grado, national sales manager for GH Armor Systems of Dover, Tenn., said wearability is constantly a target for improvement. Although GH products have to meet NIJ minimum specifications in order to be considered for purchase by law enforcement agencies, going beyond the minimum to make the vests comfortable for longer periods of time is a company priority.
Another focus of body armor improvements is the fit for female officers. An increasing number of officers are women, and for that reason the company researches structured designs that are comfortable for female shapes without being heavy or trapping moisture. A big movement is also underway in the industry to produce jackets that can be worn over clothing instead of under it, and to produce uniform shirts with removable panels — which are generally cooler than traditional vest products. Vests infused with materials that wick moisture away from the body more effectively are being developed and will hopefully lead to greater routine use.
“As long as the NIJ will stand behind it and support a product with funding, we want to make that product,” Grado said.
Some recent developments in the industry hold promise, but others have fallen short. Zylon, a high-strength organic fiber produced by Toyobo Co. Ltd. failed NIJ tests in 2003. In 2007, a model of Dragon skin did not hold up to the six-year wear warranty when it was tested.
The new frontier is nano-materials. An article by Diane Kukich in the University of Delaware Messenger three years ago highlighted pioneering nanotechnology research and applications work being done at the time by a Tuskegee University senior working at the school’s Center for Composite Materials. He developed a shear-thickening fluid that hardens on impact and has the potential to improve body armor and other protective clothing.
By integrating nanotechnology into Kevlar, a fabric has already been created that is rigid enough to protect officers and military personnel as soon as the kinetic energy threshold is breached. Someday it may be integrated into the construction protective of body armor.