Scientists have developed and patented a groundbreaking new shock-absorbing material that could revolutionize both the defense and planetary science sectors. The breakthrough came from a team from the University of Kent led by Professors Ben Goult and Jen Hiscock.
This novel protein-based family of materials, named TSAM (Talin Shock Absorbing Materials), represents the first known example of a SynBio material (or synthetic biology) capable of absorbing supersonic projectile shock. It opens the door to the development of next-generation bulletproof armor and projectile trapping materials to enable the study of hypervelocity impacts in space and the upper atmosphere (astrophysics).
Professor Ben Goult explained: “Our work on the protein talin, the cell’s natural shock absorber, has shown that this molecule contains a series of binary switch domains that open under tension and fold back together when the tension is released. This response to force gives talin its molecular shock-absorbing properties, protecting our cells from the effects of large changes in force. When we polymerized talin into a TSAM, we found that the shock absorbing properties of talin monomers gave the material incredible properties.”
The team then demonstrated real-world application of TSAMs by subjecting this hydrogel material to supersonic bursts at speeds of 1.5 km/s (3,400 mph) — a faster speed than particles in space impacting both natural and man-made objects ( typically > 1 km) impact/s) and gun muzzle velocities – which typically range from 0.4-1.0 km/s (900-2,200 mph). In addition, the team discovered that TSAMs not only absorb the impact of basalt particles (~60 µM in diameter) and larger pieces of aluminum splinters, but can also preserve these projectiles after impact.
Current body armor typically consists of a ceramic surface backed by a fiber reinforced composite that is heavy and unwieldy. While this armor is effective at blocking bullets and shrapnel, it does not block the kinetic energy that can cause blunt trauma behind the armor. Additionally, due to compromised structural integrity, this form of armor is often irreversibly damaged after impact, preventing further use. This makes the integration of TSAMs into new armor designs a potential alternative to these traditional technologies, offering lighter, more durable armor that also protects the wearer from a variety of injuries, including those caused by shock.
Additionally, the ability of TSAMs to both capture and preserve projectiles after impact makes them applicable in the aerospace sector where energy dissipating materials are needed to enable the effective collection of space debris, space dust and micrometeoroids for further scientific use Study. In addition, these captured projectiles facilitate the design of aerospace equipment, improving astronaut safety and the longevity of expensive aerospace equipment. Here, TSAMs could offer an alternative to industry-standard aerogels, which tend to melt due to the temperature increase from projectile impact.
Professor Jen Hiscock said: “This project grew out of an interdisciplinary collaboration between basic biology, chemistry and materials science that has led to the production of this amazing new class of materials. We are very excited about the potential translational capabilities of TSAMs to solve real-world problems. This is something we are actively researching with the support of new recruits in the defense and aerospace fields.”
Reference: “Next-Generation Protein-Based Materials Detect and Shield Projectiles from Supersonic Strikes” by Jack A. Doolan, Luke S. Alesbrook, Karen B. Baker, Ian R. Brown, George T. Williams, Jennifer R. Hiscock, and Benjamin T Goult , November 29, 2022, bioRxiv.