UD, Army scientists develop liquid to fortify armor fibers

UD Body Armor

072512-Innovate UD Body Armor- The team working on the new product (from left) Norm Wagner, Richard Dombrowski, Associate Scientist, Kate Gurnon, Grad Student and Colin Cwalina, grad student in one of the UD labs. The University of Delaware's Norm Wagner, Chairman of Dept of Chemical Engineering has developed a product that is bullet and stab proof kevlar based July 25, 2013. ROBERT CRAIG/THE NEWS JOURNAL / ROBERT CRAIG/THE NEWS JOURNAL

What if someone invented a fluid that transformed in milliseconds into a solid whenever it was struck by a bullet, and ice pick, a knife-wielding enemy, or even a hypodermic needle?

The opportunities for such a material would seem endless – aiding soldiers, surgeons, astronauts and athletes.

Well, Norm Wagner has done exactly that, though he is quick to say he didn’t invent the superhero-like substance, Liquid Armor, on his own.

The so-called shear thickening fluid is remarkable in its ability to change forms instantly and is the inventive genius of Wagner, a University of Delaware Alvin B. and Julia O. Stiles professor of chemical engineering, and scientist Eric Wetzel from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Md.

Wagner and Wetzel patented Liquid Armor and continue to conduct research with four doctoral students, a half-dozen undergraduates and research scientists to improve the STF and study additional applications.

Liquid Armor is a smart nanomaterial that responds in an interesting way when it senses changes, Wagner explains.

“We integrate it with ballistic materials like Kevlar and do so in a way that the fabric has the shear thickening fluid through the yarns so when you stab it or it gets hit with a bullet it reacts and helps resist,” Wagner said.

Kevlar was developed more than 40 years ago by the Wilmington-based DuPont Co, which specializes in such advanced fibers. The material is used in UD labs and enhanced by STF.

The goal, Wagner says, is to develop a true multi-thread armor that would protect first responders, such as those who raced to the scene of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Improvements are needed because a knife tip, ice pick or bomb shrapnel sometimes can sneak through gaps in woven material.

“You want something that does it all from a bullet,” to a sharp fragment, Wagner says.

UD armor demonstration

A demonstration shows that an ice pick can't penetrate fabric treated with Liquid Armor. The shear thickening fluid has the ability to change forms instantly and is the inventive genius of Norm Wagner, the University of Delaware's chairman of the department of chemical engineering. / ROBERT CRAIG/THE NEWS JOURNAL

The current objective is to commercialize the technology which UD and the Army developed over a oath stretching back 20 years.

That was when Wagner says he identified a basic need existed to understand shear thickening fluids.

“We worked with a lot of companies to prevent shear thickening,” Wagner recalls, drawing an example in toothpaste and a fundamental need for it to squeeze easily from a tube and not turn into a solid.

“But then I heard a talk around 2000 by Army surgeons talking about the need for extremity protection to complement protection in body armor and that people were getting stabbed right through their bulletproof armor in dense urban environments in Iraq,” Wagner recalls.

That’s when Wagner and his team began developing prototypes to use shear thickening to have a liquid turn solid upon impact. By 2007, a patent was in place.

Today, UD is working to commercialize the technology with Barrday, a North Carolina and Canada-based based textile manufacturer for companies that make bulletproof vests.

The list for possible partnering and potential applications goes well beyond Barrday.

Another partnership is in place with Christiana Care Health System, because the STF also can be used to make puncture-resistant surgical gloves.

“We’re partnering with them to make protective materials for doctors and surgeons because needle sticks are a big problem,” Wagner said.

“It has benefits for patients as well as medical professionals to make gloves that prevent incidental needle sticks that lead to infection or even death.”

Another partnership is aimed at Masely Enterprises, a privately owned Wilmington firm that makes gloves for military pilots; and another program is in the works with NASA to use the material to protect astronauts and space craft from micro meteorites and orbital debris.

UD researchers also are looking to develop concussion-resistant helmets for the university football team and athletes everywhere.

The innovation recently caught the eye of the White House.

Wagner and Wetzel’s novel creation was featured on “We the Geeks,” a White House Google Hangout series that recently featured the makers of materials with superhero-like qualities including Liquid Armor.

Wagner was part of a panel invited by the Office of Science and Technology, an advisory to President Barack Obama, who has been a staunch supporter for American manufacturing of advanced materials.

Contact Cori Anne Natoli at 324-2855, on Twitter @CoriAnneNatoli, Facebook Cori Natoli-News Journal or email cnatoli@delawareonline .com.