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July 10, 2020

Explosion Protection

A new multifunctional nanofiber could protect soldiers, firefighters, astronauts and others against explosions. Protective against both extreme temperatures and ballistic threats, the lightweight material was developed by NSF-funded researchers at Harvard University in collaboration with the U.S. Army.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Battle worn.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: soldiers on patrol) Today the biggest threat to soldiers in the field is not gunfire. (Sound effect: automatic machine gun fire) It's explosive devices, like IEDs. But because of their properties, materials that protect against shrapnel don't protect from the extreme heat of explosions, and vice versa. One strategy is to layer the materials, but it results in body armor so heavy that if worn on arms and legs it would limit a soldier's mobility.

Harvard University researchers, working with the U.S. Army, may have found an answer. It's known that Kevlar can be manufactured with a woven, ordered structure that provides ballistic protection or with a porous structure that insulates against heat. The team spun nanofibers into sheets that do both using long, continuous fibers with porous spacing in between. Enough order to protect against projectiles, (Sound effect: bullets) porous enough to protect against heat. (Sound effect: heat sound)

Army testing showed fragment protection was on a par with currently available materials. Thermal tests showed 20 times better insulation against heat. Not only soldiers, (Sound effect: dispatcher, siren) but firefighters, (Sound effect: mission communication) even astronauts, could have wearable protective gear that's lighter weight, woven with the new fiber process.

Hmmm -- getting fiber -- losing weight.

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