A New Mexico State University researcher and an engineering graduate student have partnered with Arrowhead Center’s student business incubator, Studio G, to further develop a protective shield technology that could help reduce concussions and even save lives. The partnership is supported by a $50,000 award from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program.
The technology is based on a damage-trap material interface researched and developed by Roy L. Xu, a research associate professor in NMSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. In 2002, while working on his doctorate thesis research at the California Institute of Technology, Xu discovered a very thin interface bonding that could stop impact damage of layered brittle polymers subjected to an impact speed up to about 100 miles per hour.
“Bullet proof materials such as Kevlar usually have a low resistance to a sharp knife,” Xu said.
The damage-trap material interface, or DTMI, when combined with other polymers, can mitigate that weakness – and is light and cost-effective enough for use in shields for backpacks and cases for laptops and tablets.
Motivated by concern about violent incidents in the news, including shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School, as well as a knife attack in China, Xu saw an opportunity to improve on the $300 to $400 bulletproof backpacks currently available.
“I visited Virginia Tech only one week before the deadliest shooting incident in U.S. history,” Xu said. “I visited the building and the same professor who had saved student lives.”
The researcher and father of an elementary-aged child calls the interface material a “magic adhesive.”
When used as part of a hybrid material with bulletproof materials like Kevlar and knife-proof materials like polycarbonate aluminum, the DTMI can successfully stop impact damage, increasing the effectiveness of the hybrid material.
NMSU chemical engineering graduate student Brian Patterson is working with the technology through Studio G, and pursued the I-Corps funding opportunity with Xu and Studio G Director Kramer Winingham. The goal is to commercialize the lightweight and affordable material.
“Business ideas that are presented through this program have a direct impact on research and development and are closely related,” Patterson said. “Therefore, it’s important to understand the business components as they dictate the R&D direction.”
The team interviewed 100 potential customers to gain a better understanding of the market for their technology.
The I-Corps program and activities prepare scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and broaden the impact of their projects. One of the I-Corps objectives is to have an entrepreneurial student who shows potential in business and technology handle the commercialization.
“I-Corps is a tremendous program that teaches students how to be entrepreneurs,” Winingham said. “Brian, as the entrepreneurial lead for our team, has done an outstanding job and has learned a lot. Based on his efforts, I believe Dr. Xu’s technology is significantly closer to market.”
The DTMI material also has applications in football helmets and could help reduce concussion risk for players. The helmet shell materials with DTMI designs could increase impact-energy absorption at least 130 percent, compared to the current shell materials.
“A key finding during the I-Corps program was the opportunity for an advanced helmet shell design that could reduce concussions and adapt to other helmet technologies,” Winingham said. “This appears to be the best initial application for Dr. Xu’s technology.”
As a result of the I-Corps program and the helmet shell design, Xu has been invited to submit a full-technical proposal, in collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, to the third NFL Head Health Challenge, an open competition to advance materials that better absorb or dissipate energy.
“Dr. Xu’s technology offers some exciting capabilities,” said Winingham. “Our challenge was identifying the best use for those capabilities, and through Brian’s hard work and resourcefulness, we identified the most promising applications and gained a lot from the I-Corps program.”