Body Armor

Image via      BlackPantherDaily

I, like many of you (I hope), saw Black Panther, and, of course, there was much to read from it. One of those things, I would like to consider – Black Panther’s armor.

Science Not-Too-Fiction

The first thing that I noticed in the movie, beyond the incredible Wakandan Technology, was that the newly minted King T’Challa did not quite understand what his suit did at first, resulting in a very painful and embarrassing situation. What I can also tell you is that every person in the theater with an awareness of the definition of “kinetic energy” understood exactly what was going to happen. Including many of you, if you have been with me for long enough (shout out to electron theory).

The only way that a suit like his could turn kinetic energy, the energy of motion, into potential energy, stored energy, is through some sort of spring. After all, we don’t have any technology that can absorb energy and retain it. That goes against the very nature of energy.

Springs are interesting things. The Black Panther’s armor seemed to fit him like a nice spandex suit. But how likely is it to have a suit like that behave the same way? Are there any spring-like clothes? To a very limited extent and under certain conditions, textile fibers can behave like springs. For example, wool clothes are stretchy like metal springs. Once you deform and pull on your old Christmas sweater, it snaps back into shape as if you did nothing.

Its problem is that it has no kind of impact-resistance. A quick punch to the body at your local boxing gym will both make you upset and give you a reason to take some ibuprofen in the morning. So, what if you added a molecular compound to it that was harder?

Harder, Better, Faster, Wronger

Graphene, composed of a hexagonal (six-sided) lattice of carbon atoms with the thickness of one atom, is the most thin, durable and stable material currently known to science through testing. And, it’s already been melded into wool through transmutation of graphene oxide and titanium oxide nanocomposites to a graphene/titanium dioxide nanocomposite on wool fibers. Its ability to conduct heat makes it effective to wear as clothing, unless you’re running through fire. But its electrical conductivity would make any introduction of electricity to the material a shocking experience, especially since wool already has a high conductivity. Nevertheless, with an appropriate insulator surrounding a core of graphene, it is not hard to see this becoming a popular type of body armor.

How about we look at one of the most recent fibers, Kevlar? While Graphene has a tensile strength of 130 gigapascals (GPa), Kevlar only has a strength of 3.6 to 3.7 GPa, yet it has been successfully made into a durable fiber about eight times stronger than ordinary steel (0.4 GPa). The problem is exactly that – it’s fiber. Once you break it, the rest of it slackens and becomes weaker.

Interestingly, by the way, I found that hair could have the strength of steel, according to how it’s composed or treated; could you imagine hair being used as armor?

A graph that shows the tensile strength of hair to be around 200 to 250 MPa.     Image via      Instron

A graph that shows the tensile strength of hair to be around 200 to 250 MPa.

Image via Instron

The thing about these types of body armor is that they’re heavy and inflexible. Rigid frames of armor can withstand impacts, but with enough the force, two things can happen. Either the armor shatters or breaks, or you take a hit that is similar to someone swinging a hammer into you, creating a nasty bruise. In fact, people typically look at armor as something that needs to be only two things: hard and harder.

Fortunately, scientists are aware of these cons and are already doing something about it. Those that need this body armor most, the military, are moving toward more flexible solutions. The US Air Force and Naval Research Laboratory have teamed up to get rid of the common armor – steel and/or ceramic – which is too inflexible and uncomfortable. Instead, they created a type of armor that was made with foam-covered ceramic balls, supported by polyethylene sheets (you know polyethylene for its starring roles in plastic shopping bags, hard plastic containers and trash bins). The balls, you could imagine, make it easy for you to rotate your body and also allow different body types to fit a bulletproof vest.

In any event, it seems like Shuri still holds the crown when it comes to body armor. The goal of flexible, spring-like, and durable might not be possible with our current elements, but the beauty of chemistry is in all of the different possibilities that you can get just by changing one step. Maybe we will end up creating a vibranium-like substance one day, just by chance.

But I want to know: what other systems or particles do we have today that mirror the effects of the armor of the Black Panther that I might have missed?