Nanofoams could find use in better body armor


March 26, 2013

Nanofoams, such as this one made from porous silica, are able to absorb large amounts of energy without structural failure

Nanofoams, such as this one made from porous silica, are able to absorb large amounts of energy without structural failure

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Given that scientists are already looking to sea sponges as an inspiration for body armor, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that foam is also being considered ... not just any foam, though. Unlike regular foam, specially-designed nanofoams could someday not only be used in body armor, but also to protect buildings from explosions.

Led by professor of structural engineering Yu Qiao, a team at the University of California, San Diego has been creating the foams by mixing pairs of substances together at a molecular level, then removing one of those materials via acid etching or combustion. As a result, the spaces formerly occupied by the targeted material end up as tiny empty pores within the remaining material.

The size of those pores is crucial, however. It was observed that when regular foams are subjected to a sudden, intense impact, the energy is absorbed in one localized area – this can lead to structural failure. When the foam’s pores are small enough (but not too small), that energy is harmlessly dispersed over a wider area.

Prof. Qiao's nanofoam-testing gas gun

The structure of the nanofoams is composed of 50 to 80 percent pores, which have ranged in size from 10 nanometers to 10 microns each. Those different grades of nanofoam are tested in a lab-based gas gun, that subjects them to increasingly strong impacts. They’re subsequently examined for damage, using a scanning electron microscope.

While the research is still ongoing, nanofoams with a pore size within the tens of nanometers have so far shown the best ability to absorb impacts and blasts.

Source: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Speaking as an Ordnance officer, I would think an array of small volumes of foam of several specific sizes and layered together would be most efficient at de-coupling the incoming waves of an impact and deflecting, diffracting and re-directing those waves laterally away from the point of impact.


Mass produce for armoring industry alone. Radical Lightweight armor for our forces overseas.

Stephen Russell

The way things are going with the gun nuts and conceal/carry, we'll all be wearing body armor in a few years. Welcome to the wild west!

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