The new plastic is 14 times stronger and eight times lighter than steel. This lightweight material was inspired by the mother of pearl. (Photo from University of Buffalo)


A return to indestructible plastic phones and devices? Yes, please.


Next to diamond, pearls are some of the most sought after jewels. They can represent anything from love to wealth, but a group of scientists is using the gems in a way that may change military armor. Researchers at the University at Buffalo, with funding by the Army Research Office (ARO), recently created a new lightweight plastic that is 14 times stronger and eight times lighter than steel by imitating the outer coating of pearls.


The resulting material is “stiff and tough,” making it ideal for absorbing the impact of bullets or other projectiles. This lightweight material can be used as a basis for creating new body armor, advanced combat helmets, ballistic plates, and combat vehicles. However, I'd like to see it be the base building material for all new devices. Tough phones and laptops would be a great first application.


So what’s it made of? Most of the material is an advanced version of polyethylene, the most common plastic, called ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). This material is often used to make artificial hips and guitar picks. Researchers based the material’s design by studying the mother of pearl, which mollusks make by arranging a form of calcium carbonate into a pattern that’s similar to interlocking bricks.


With the mother of pearl to go off of, the researchers created the material with an extremely tough exterior with a flexible backing that can deform and absorb projectiles. Also, it has high thermal conductivity, which has the capability to quickly dissipate heat. This helps the material absorb the impact of bullets and other projectiles. Heat sink potential?


"Professor Ren's work designing UHMWPE to dramatically improve impact strength may lead to new generations of lightweight armor that provide both protection and mobility for Soldiers," said Dr. Evan Runnerstrom, program manager, materials design, ARO. "In contrast to steel or ceramic armor, UHMWPE could also be easier to cast or mold into complex shapes, providing versatile protection for Soldiers, vehicles, and other Army assets."


This is called soft armor, in which soft yet tightly woven materials create a very strong net capable of stopping bullets. The best example of soft armor is KEVLAR. This new lightweight plastic could be the new soft armor, but researchers are still working on it. They continue to experiment with the UHMWPE by adding silica nanoparticles. The tiny parts of the chemical could further improve the material’s properties and create an even stronger armor.


“This work demonstrates that the right materials design approaches have the potential to make big impacts for Army technologies,” Runnerstrom said.


The researchers’ results were published in the Applied Polymer Materials journal.


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