After a little more than a year of research and more than 20 attempts to get the right materials, an Air Force Academy cadet and professor have developed a kind of goo that can be used to enhance existing types of body armor.
As part of a chemistry class project in 2014, Cadet 1st Class Hayley Weir was assigned epoxy, Kevlar, and carbon fiber to use to create a material that could stop a bullet.
The project grabbed Weir's interest.
"Like Under Armour, for real," she said.
The materials reminded her of Oobleck, a non-Newtonian fluid — which thickens when force is applied — made of cornstarch and water and named after a substance from a Dr. Seuss book, and she became interested in producing a material that would stop bullets without shattering. An adviser suggested swapping a thickening fluid for the epoxy, which hardened when it dried.
"Up to that point, it was the coolest thing I'd done as a cadet," Weir, set to graduate this spring, told Air Force Times.
But soon after, she had to switch majors from materials chemistry to military strategies. That presented a challenge in continuing the research, but she teamed up with Ryan Burke, a military and strategic studies professor at the academy.
Burke, a former Marine, was familiar with the cumbersome nature of current body armor, and he was enthused about Weir's project.
"When she came to me with this idea, I said, 'Let's do it,'" he said. "Even if it is a miserable failure, I was interested in trying."
Air Force Academy cadet Hayley Weir with professor Ryan Burke. | Air Force Academy photo by Tech Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
The science behind the material is not new, and Burke expected that the vast defense industry had pursued such a substance already. But a search of studies found no such work, and researchers and chemists at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center said the idea was worth looking into.
They began work during the latter half of 2016 using the academy's firing range, weapons, and a high-speed camera. Burke got in touch with Marine Corps contacts who provided testing materials.
In the lab, Weir would make the substance using a KitchenAid mixer and plastic utensils. It was then placed in vacuum-sealed bags, flattened into quarter-inch layers, and inserted into a swatch of Kevlar.
At first, during tests with a 9 mm pistol, they made little headway.
"Bullets kept going straight through the material with little sign of stopping," Weir told Air Force Times. After revisiting their work and redoing the layering pattern, they returned to the firing range on December 9.
The bullet-stopping material developed by Weir and Burke being mixed. NBC/KUSA 9 News
"We're very pleased," said Jeff Owens, a senior research chemist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center's requirements, research, and development division. "We now understand more about what the important variables are, so now we're going to go back and pick all the variables apart, optimize each one, and see if we can get up to a higher level of protection."
The model Weir and Burke created uses 75% less fabric than standard military-style body armor.
It also has the potential for use as a protective lining on vehicles and aircraft and in tents to protect their occupants from shrapnel or gunfire.
"It's going to make a difference for Marines in the field," Burke said.
On the civilian side, the material could aid emergency responders in active-shooter situations.
"I don't think it has actually set in how big this can get," Weir said in early May. "I think this is going to take off and it's going to be really awesome."
While the ultimate use of the material is unclear, the US Army and Marine Corps are reportedly looking for ways lighten the body armor their personnel use.
A study by the Government Accountability Office, cited by Army Times, highlighted joint efforts to lower the weight of current body armor, which is 27 pounds on average. Including body armor, the average total weight carried by Marines is 117 pounds, while soldiers are saddled with 119 pounds, according to the report.
The Army and Marines have looked into several ways to redistribute the weight soldiers and Marines carry, including new ways to transport their gear on and around the battlefield. The GAO report also said each branch had updated its soft armor, in some cases cutting 6 to 7 pounds.