Liquid Armor With Shear Thickening Fluid

Liquid armor created from Kevlar ballistic fabric soaked in a shear thickening fluid will be offered as products by Armor Holdings by the end of this year. The basic principles should be familiar to Technovelgy readers; the research for the product was detailed in Liquid Armor In Two Flavors: Shear Thickening and Magnetorheological two years ago.


(Liquid Armor: Kevlar soaked in shear thickening fluid)

Shear thickening fluids have been known for many years; cornstarch and water can be used to demonstrate the basic principle. Under unstressed conditions, it flows slowly like a viscous liquid; when struck, it hardens in a millisecond. They are also called "dilatant" fluids.

The thickening of the fluid spreads the force of impact over a wider area; it can prevent a bullet, knife point or bomb fragment from penetrating.

According to Norman Wagner, who with Eric Wetzel lead the teams that developed liquid armor, the nanoparticle-based liquid is "intercalated" with the Kevlar fibers; it's not just a vest soaked in fluid. The treatment has the effect of preventing the fibers from spreading apart upon impact. Armor Holdings acquired the patent rights to liquid armor materials last February.

Wagner provided some insight in discussing the research in an earlier interview in 2004:

"We would first like to put this material in a soldier's sleeves and pants, areas that aren't protected by ballistic vests but need to remain flexible. We could also use this material for bomb blankets, to cover suspicious packages or unexploded ordnance. Liquid armor could even be applied to jump boots, so that they would stiffen during impact to support Soldiers' ankles."

The concept of liquid armor, armor that was flexible when necessary but which turns rigid upon impact, was explored by science fiction writers long before its appearance as a product.

In his 1968 novel Neutron Star, writer Larry Niven thought of flexible armor suits:

He was weaponless, but his suit was a kind of defense. No projectile short of a fast meteorite could harm him. Like a silicone plastic, the pressure suit was soft and malleable under gentle pressures, such as walking, but instantly became rigid all over when something struck it...
(Read more about Larry Niven's flexible armor suit)

A more recent reference from sf author Neal Stephenson, from his 1992 novel Snow Crash provides insight into the practical use of such a product, as well as a cool (and trademarkable) name:

Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel; feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.
(Read more about sintered armorgel)

Read more about shear thickening fluids; take a look at the reader comments from the previous article. For more shear thickening fun, take a look at Skiers Get d3o-Based 'Impact Suits'. See also Body Armor Fit for a Superhero from Business Week for a different perspective; despite the obvious military applications, Armor Holdings will probably first introduce Liquid Armor as a product for prison guards.

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