New body armour that can stop bullets travelling at the speed of sound has been developed by British scientists.
The material could ensure the safety of military and police personnel, as well as guarding airplanes and spacecraft against flying debris.
The protective suit is light and comfortable to wear, and contains a protein found in human cells. Known as talin, it reforms in response to external forces.
Project leader Professor Benjamin Goult, of the University of Kent, explained: “Each molecule has 13 ‘switches’ that can unfold when force is applied.
“These refold after force is removed – enabling shock absorption.”
His team adapted the ends of three, then linked them together using water and a gelling agent to form a mesh.
When something hits, the energy unfolds the modified talin rather than being converted to heat – as is the case with existing materials, he said.
In experiments, a piston fired tiny particles of basalt and larger pieces of shrapnel at a sample placed in front of an aluminium plate.
Even at supersonic speeds of a mile a second – twice as fast as firearm bullets – the gel stopped them in their tracks.
It opens the door to next-generation bullet-proof armour, reports New Scientist.
Prof Goult said: “Talin is cells’ natural shock absorber. It contains a series of binary switch domains which open under tension and refold again once tension drops.
“This response to force gives talin its incredible properties, protecting our cells from the effects of large force changes.”
Current body armour has a bulky ceramic face with a fibre-reinforced composite backing.
While good at stopping bullets and flying debris, it is ineffective against ‘kinetic energy’ – which can cause physical trauma to the body beneath.
What is more, due to reduced structural integrity, it frequently sustains permanent damage after a hit, barring continued usage.
Talin based alternatives are a viable replacement for existing conventional technologies.
Prof Goult said: “It offers a lighter, more durable armour shielding the wearer from a wider spectrum of injuries – including those brought on by shock.”
Energy-dissipating materials are required to efficiently collect space debris, dust and tiny meteoroids for scientific investigation.
They can trap and store projectiles after impact and help construct expensive equipment – increasing astronauts’ durability and safety.
They may also replace aerogels used in the industry which are prone to melting due to temperature increases brought on by projectile impact.
The team is now working with a company to develop the gel as a component of body armour.
Other proteins labelled with markers can bind to talin. Damage could be identified by adding fluorescent protein.
Prof Goult said: “There’s an analogy with autopilots in planes. A lot of private planes don’t contain autopilots.”
The study has been published on science website bioRxiv.