As fantastical as it sounds, our next innovation in defensive body armor for our military and law enforcement officer’s may be inspired by a million-year-old sea creature who is not only a tough customer but also happens to be delicious when served with a side of melted butter.
Ming Guo, from the mechanical engineering department of MIT, had a breakthrough when he was enjoying a lobster at dinner. He noticed that lobsters have membranes between their joints that is as strong as tire rubber.
He realized that this naturally growing material was nearly impossible to chew but was also flexible and soft. His thought was that this material would be perfect in the joints of body armor.
A study released in Acta Materialia states: "The knowledge learned from the soft membrane of natural lobsters sheds light on designing synthetic soft, yet strong and tough materials for reliable usage under extreme mechanical conditions, including a flexible armor that can provide full-body protection without sacrificing limb mobility."
Ming explains, “We think this work could motivate flexible armor design. If you could make armor out of these types of materials, you could freely move your joints, and it would make you feel more comfortable."
While bulletproof vests are a valuable tool for law enforcement officers and military, they do have a few drawbacks. Kevlar’s effectiveness only spans around five years, at which time they should be replaced. Kevlar is also bulky and unforgiving, not suitable for all body types.
In particular, women frequently need to have Kevlar vests altered. Because Kevlar is bulky, it interferes with concentration and marksmanship abilities. Making the vests more mobile decreases their effectiveness.
To be truly effective, body armor needs to be flexible and light to allow the wearer to move freely. It also needs to be tough and made from materials that are abundant for ease and affordability of manufacturing.
As hard as it is to imagine a lobster-inspired bulletproof vest, the body armor of the crustacean fulfills all of these qualities. Researchers from MIT and Harvard are currently exploring how best to harness the benefits of lobster armor for human use.
Even though lobster armor brings to mind a cartoon character with claws and a bright red suit, it’s not so far-fetched. As body armor evolves to be stronger and more flexible, chances are that bulky armor, made from cloth and Kevlar, will become a distant memory.
Science fiction films hint at ways that body armor will improve. In fact, the Robert Rodriguez film, Alita: Battle Angel, hints that in the distant future, humans will sport robotic body parts.
For now, MIT scientists are taking their cues from a million-year-old lobster who has evolved to fit their habitat perfectly. Their armor protects them from temperature extremes and other intense under-water conditions, and one day, it may protect our LEO’s and military from equally intense conditions on duty and in the battlefield.