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Better Materials for Safer Sports: Time to Use Our Heads

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A simple example of making a material fail "better": By fine-tuning the thickness of the connecting spokes in a sheet of acrylic, we can change how it transmits force when fractured. With thick spokes (left), fractures propagate in a straight line and concentrate the impact. Thin spokes (right) divert the fracture across the sheet, diffusing the impact.

Guest blog post by Dr. Laurie E. Locascio, Director of the Material Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology

On Thursday, the White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit, President Obama highlighted both the need for greater national awareness of the risks our young athletes face from traumatic brain injuries and the need for increased research on how to combat these potentially life-altering injuries.

In 2009, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency departments in the United States treated more than 250,000 sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, among children and adolescents—a figure that’s risen by 60 percent in the past decade.

At the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), we recognize that the use of advanced materials in protective equipment, such as helmets, can play a critical role in this effort. For that reason, NIST is investing $1 million per year for 5 years on tools to accelerate the development of advanced materials that can provide better protection against concussions for the athlete.

Sports equipment often leads the way in adopting new advances in materials—think of carbon nanotubes in high-end tennis rackets and golf clubs. But modern materials science offers the possibility of specifically designing new materials, from the ground up, that are tailored to the special needs of helmets and other protective equipment.

As an example, “shear-thickening suspensions”—specially designed particles suspended in a liquid polymer—can be a high-tech shock absorber that instantly adapts to offer greater resistance to stronger shocks. You’ve encountered a sheer-thickening suspension if you’ve ever tried to stir cornstarch in water quickly.

Other possibilities include micro- or nanostructured materials that either absorb shocks by crumpling in specific ways, rather like some automobile components are designed to protect passengers in a crash, or that selectively deform to channel the energy of shocks away from highly sensitive areas, like the skull. Self-healing polymers and shape-memory metal alloys can both provide reinforcement and extend the longevity of the equipment.

All of these depend on concepts from the President’s Materials Genome Initiative (MGI): replacing trial-and-error experimentation with physical theory, advanced computer models, vast materials properties databases and complex computations to design new materials with specific properties. NIST plans to work closely with the recently created Center for Hierarchical Materials Design, a NIST Center of Excellence that was established specifically to pursue tools for creating custom materials.

Our principal focus will be to provide the research community with tools to advance this work: improved methods for determining material response to stress, sophisticated models and standards to support materials testing. An important part of our effort will be directed at better measurement tools—such as impact sensors that can be embedded in sports equipment—to help physicians and medical researchers better understand health effects and gear performance.

As a civilian technology effort, NIST’s program will be focused on sports helmets; however, preventing traumatic brain injuries also is of great interest to the U.S. military. So we anticipate working closely with defense R&D agencies to explore how our results may be adapted to better protect our service men and women.

Sports provide tremendous positive, healthy experiences for so many of the nation’s youth and adults. It’s time to make sure our protective materials and equipment are just as smart as our plays.

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