These body armor breakthroughs will change combat

Somewhere, probably in front of a brightly lit screen with Weird Al playing in the background, a bunch of pencil-pushing scientists are writing long formulas on whiteboards, looking at the formulas thoughtfully, and then trying to use all that science to make you nearly invulnerable to firearms.

Body armor saves lives, but it destroys knees.

(U.S. Army Sgt. Kiara Flowers)

Current body armor is great against most rifle, submachine gun, and pistol fire, but it's far from perfect. It's heavy, adding as much as 40 pounds to troops' loads, and it cracks under repeated hits. Against high-velocity and high-caliber rounds, it will typically give way, allowing the rounds to pierce the target anyway.

And all of that's without taking into account that the armor, when working perfectly and when hit by rounds it's designed to stop, can't absorb all the impact. Most of it gets transferred to the target, just over a larger surface, sometimes resulting in broken bones or internal bleeding.

So it could definitely deal with some serious improvements. And that's where the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology comes in. They have projects in the works that could give rise to futuristic body armor.

Researchers are modeling impacts with 10,000 or more particles that, as they rub together, could absorb the energies of bullets, shrapnel, or blasts that would otherwise kill a soldier.

(Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, MIT)

One of the most exciting is possibly the "Superelastic Granular Materials for Impact Absorption." Yup, it's a boring title. This is science. They name stuff with "descriptive" titles instead of entertaining ones. But, basically, this is looking at how to give troops high-tech, wearable beanbags.

The idea is that a bunch of grains of elastic material or crystals can be packed into the armor and, as the armor is hit, the energy is dissipated by these objects through friction and "intra-particle martensitic phase transformation."

That last phrase is about a fairly complicated scientific process, but it's the same process that metal goes through when it's tempered. At its most basic level, the microstructures of certain metals change when heated or placed under extreme stress. So, if a bullet hits a material that will go through the martensitic transformation, then that material will absorb energy as it changes, possibly saving the soldier who doesn't have to absorb that energy instead.

This is a time-lapse image of a silica particle striking polymer materials. Watching the polymers at this micro-level requires sophisticated equipment, but allows researchers to get a much better idea of how these materials absorb impacts.

(Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, MIT)

Another project is looking at what materials future body armor should be made of. What will hold the superelastic granular materials? That's the purview of "Design & Testing of Polymers for Improved Soldier Protection." They're looking at current materials used in body armor and other applications and seeing how they respond to shock and impact.

The hope is that, with a proper understanding of how these materials work at the most microlevels, MIT can figure out how to synthesize even better materials for protecting troops. And these guys want the nitty gritty details on how the materials take hits, watching the materials and measuring their electromagnetic properties when microparticles are fired at them.

One of the specific things they want to know is what materials give up hydrogen atoms when hit and which ones take hydrogen atoms when hit, allowing them to blend materials together so they quickly create hydrogen bonds and crystalline structures when stressed.

One of the projects looks at how different nanocomposite materials react to different stresses.

(Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, MIT)

In "Shock Mitigating and Reinforcing Molecular Nanocomposites," another team is looking at how shockwaves travel through materials, especially nanocomposites, so that blast and ballistic hits to armor won't kill the soldier wearing it.

The shockwave from an explosion travels through different tissues and different parts of cells at different rates, and so it causes the tissues and cells to deform, ripping them apart, potentially killing the soldier. And, that can happen even when zero shrapnel or heat hits the target.

If that shock can be mitigated—especially if it can be mitigated in extremely strong, light materials like graphene—then explosive weapons would lose a lot of their power against troops wearing new armor.

3rd Cavalry Regiment soldiers during a reconnaissance patrol in Iraq in November 2018.

(U.S. Army 1st Lt. Timothy Durkin)

If all the projects come to fruition and engineers are able to blend all the results together, we could see a revolution of body armor. Instead of simply using hard materials to stop attacks like we have for centuries, we could use flexible materials to create armor that moves like clothing and, if we're really lucky, weighs about the same as traditional fabrics.

But when these fabrics are hit by blasts or by gunshots, the fibers harden themselves and stop the threat, crystalline structures packed inside of the armor absorb the energy, and the whole thing is cost-effective because we've figured out cheap ways to create the fabrics.

But it will likely take decades to create final products and get them to the field.

Until then, you're just going to have to ruck with ballistic plates. Sorry.