Behind every effective PPE are materials designed for specific and critical purposes.
When we think of personal protective equipment (PPE), we may first visualize the end applications: a firefighters turnout gear or a soldier’s helmet, perhaps. How these products are constructed is important, but the materials that go into them are equally crucial in making them perform as required. Many of the most significant, impactful innovations are new fibers, textiles, composites and the way those structures are designed and assembled. These new developments take time and collaborative expertise, particularly when one considers what’s at stake with PPEs.
One of the research facilities fostering these relationships is UMass Lowell [University of Massachusetts Lowell]. Its collaborative approach is evidenced in its HEROES, (Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Soldiers) program, a joint research and development initiative of UMass Lowell and the U.S. Army Natick. Technical Programs manager Cheryl Gomes says the program is designed to bring together complementary expertise across disciplines.
Last summer, UMass Lowell opened its Fabric Discovery Center, which Gomes says is a model hub, and the first one to bring together three different innovation institutes under one roof to more easily collaborate. AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) is one; Nexflex, which does flexible hybrid electronics is another; and the third is Advanced Robotics.
“It’s a very good marriage—it’s really a synergy,” Gomes says. “The sum of the parts is greater than the individual entities.” Additionally, the building’s top floor houses a medical device “incubator” and a UMass Lowell project. Collaboration is not just possible in this environment, it’s fostered in some basic ways.
“We don’t even have a coffee area on the first two floors; they’re on the other two floors,” Gomes says. This might encourage more collaborations – even in the elevator.
What’s in the works?
“One of the things we’re working on is to make more environmentally friendly flame retardants for fabrics. We’re looking at materials from tree nuts, for example,” Gomes says. “We’re making equipment to create an organic, photovoltaic fiber, so we can make basically a solar fabric that can generate power.”
UMass Lowell students and faculty are also working with manufacturer Saint-Gobain on a fabric that will detect internal deterioration in construction materials, such as concrete supporting columns. The Center is also working in partnership with Raytheon to make flexible antennas that can fit inside warfighters’ helmets. These could be used for communications, or even to detect concussions.
There are a variety of other projects involving protective applications for soldiers; among them are chem/bio protection, insect protection, bio sensors and transparent armor.
An impact energy absorbing material
Corsair Innovations is one of the companies contributing novel, new materials for protective applications. This summer, Corsair won the fourth NFL HeadHealth TECH Challenge for its Fiber Energy Absorbing Material (FEAM). The award came with a $168,000 grant as part of the NFL’s “Play Smart, Play Safe initiative, which funds companies committed to “develop new and improved helmets and protective equipment,” according to the company.
FEAM is a 100 percent textile impact energy absorbing material that deflects and protects from rotational impacts. William Lyndon, Corsair president, says these are the types of injuries that can do the most damage. “The worst forces are sheer or rotational forces. What our material does is absorb or redirect that force.” The ultimate goal of the NFL is to develop helmets specifically designed for each position, he says. FEAM can be made from a variety of materials and constructed to maximize protection in each application used.
Corsair’s IP is on the structure of the material, which makes it “dramatically different” from other products, according to Lyndon. “We put down a layered adhesive on a textile and apply small, chopped up high denier fibers to make the flocked layer. Another piece of textile on top makes it a ‘fiber sandwich,’” he says. “It absorbs energy because those fibers are like springs; they’ll bend and snap back. If they get hit at an angle, they’ll sheer and go with the energy [which redirects it].”
FEAM was invented at UMass Dartmouth in about 2010 and Corsair Innovations was founded in 2013 to commercialize the technology, but introducing a new material has been “a tough lift,” he says, “because you have to convince people that it works.”
Although the material Corsair offers is expensive, the company has “made tremendous strides in the manufacturing process,” Lyndon says. But how do you measure the value of a system that could save people from catastrophic injury? “We believe that we can bring in a system that’s going to reduce the number of injuries and pay for itself,” he says – never mind the personal traumas that could be avoided.
The company is looking to the future by branching out into other sports. A soccer helmet is on the way, and as of the 2018 season, all pro baseball umpires were wearing protection with their product. It’s also in talks with the military via Natick and expects to complete some of the testing concerning relevant applications in just weeks.
The company is looking at new fibers to use, as well. In particular, it’s considering one to make a flame-resistant impact material that could be used in applications for firefighters, racecar drivers, in industrial environments and with prostheses.
The developers believe the technology could be useful in long-term care beds. “We can make a bad that breathes and wicks sweat away for better care for bed patients—a game changer in reducing the risk of pressure sores,” he says.
3D woven composites
Bally Ribbon Mills (BRM) is using 3D continuous weaving to create new joint structures and improve existing joints. The company, which designs, develops and manufactures specialized, engineered woven fabrics, says this delivers an optimal blend of strength, durability and structural integrity.
With a 3D weave, strength and support is translated in all three dimensions, which enables the joint to reinforce the strength along the load paths of the substructures being joined together. The 3D woven composites are particularly successful in aviation heat shield applications such as thermal protection systems, which are mission-critical components, particularly in space exploration vehicles.
BRM says the components also function well as engine parts in aircraft, replacing traditional titanium engine components with 3-D woven carbon fiber composites, which serves to reduce weight and lifetime cost.
The company’s contribution may be small in size, compared to some, but it is another illustration of how each component in protective applications—each material in each component, in fact—plays a critical role in the success of the final product.
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at email@example.com.