The science behind these tricks can make for more than viral YouTube videos. Researchers at the Army Research Lab are investigating a way to use straps containing a shear thickening fluid (cornstarch and water is a popular example) to reduce the likelihood of football players suffering concussions.
The National Football League, Under Armour and GE awarded the team at the Aberdeen Proving Ground $500,000 to spend a year researching the technology as part of their Head Health Challenge II. The group was one of seven winners announced Thursday.
A shear thickening fluid provides a lot of resistance when acted on at high speeds, but very little at low speeds. That’s why it’s possible to safely sprint across the pool of cornstarch and water, but slow to a crawl and you’ll sink. That same principle could be useful for preventing concussions, as the injuries are thought to result from blows to the skull in which one’s head suddenly accelerates. By using straps that keep the helmet in place, the head doesn’t accelerate and absorb a punishing force.
In theory, football helmets could just be attached to the rest of a player’s body, but then players wouldn’t be able to look from side to side or up and down. Because these straps offer only weak resistance at low speeds, it would be possible to look around the field. But when a wide receiver is tackled by a sprinting opponent, the straps will tighten and offer protection.
“I’m confident we can reduce head motion during some of these events,” said Eric Wetzel, the technical area manager for Materials for Soldier Protection at the Army Research Laboratory. “I’m confident the person will still be able to look around and run and jump and catch a football. Will it be as unencumbered as with no straps on? Probably not. I can’t make these straps perfectly mechanically invisible.”
Wetzel is working with a core team of about half a dozen people to perfect the design of the straps, which they call RAT straps, as in rate-actuated tethers.
To start, he’s using a crash-test dummy to simulate a player being knocked on his back, and then having the dummy’s head smack the ground. The researchers will try different substances in the strap, including glycols, silicone oil, mineral oil, silica, clay and precipitated calcium carbonate to find the formula that does the job best. The team also will figure out what the straps will attach to. A player’s shoulder pads are an option, but Wetzel has other options up his sleeve, which he’s not ready to reveal yet.
The raw materials are all inexpensive, so costs seem unlikely to be a barrier from a wide implementation of the technology.
And why is an Army researcher working to help football players? Wetzel says the findings can be applied to reduce concussions among soldiers on the battlefield or in training. By working with football players, he suddenly has the benefit of a real-world laboratory to study concussions.
“If I can use this as a platform to evaluate things we’re working on, that’s an invaluable opportunity. Otherwise I’d be working with crash-test dummies and not knowing if I’m having a positive effect,” Wetzel said.
Wetzel’s group was selected from nearly 500 proposals in 19 countries. Up to five of the winning teams will receive an addition $1 million in 2015 to continue their research. See the complete list of winners here.