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Blog Category: White House Healthy Kids and Safe Sports Concussion Summit

Better Materials for Safer Sports: Time to Use Our Heads

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.