Believe it or not, but an ordinary cotton T-shirt – which is available at Wal-Mart – can be converted into body armour for soldiers or police officers, thanks to scientists from South Carolina, Switzerland and China, according to MSNBC.
The researchers at the University of South Carolina, collaborating with others from China and Switzerland, drastically increased the toughness of a T-shirt by combining the carbon in the shirt’s cotton with boron – the third hardest material on earth. The result is a lightweight shirt reinforced with boron carbide, the same material used to protect tanks.
The research could lead to more comfortable body armour for soldiers and police. It could even be used to produce lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircraft.
Dr. Xiaodong Li, USC College of Engineering and Computing Distinguished Professor in Mechanical Engineering, co-authored the recent article on the research in the journal, Advanced Materials.
“USC is playing a leading role in this area. This is a true breakthrough,” Li said, calling the research “a conceptual change in fabricating lightweight, fuel-efficient, super-strong and ultra-tough materials. This groundbreaking new study opens up unprecedented opportunities.”
Boron carbide is the third hardest material on Earth, after diamond and another boron-based material. In bulletproof vests and tanks, thick, heavy ceramic plates of dark gray boron carbide protect soldiers and police. Cotton, however, couldn’t be more different from boron carbide. Soft and breathable, cotton clothes are cheap and widely worn. The trick for the scientists was combining dissolved boron with the carbon fibers inside the cotton fibers to form boron carbide.
The scientists started with plain, white T-shirts that were cut into thin strips and dipped into a boron solution. The strips were later removed from the solution and heated in an oven. The heat changes the cotton fibers into carbon fibers, which react with the boron solution and produce boron carbide.
The resulting fabric is very different than the original materials that at the start of the process-it’s lighter, stronger, tougher and stiffer than the original cotton, but it can still be bent, unlike normal boron carbide armour plates.
“The currently used boron-carbide bulk material is brittle,” Dr. Xiaodong Li said. “The boron-carbide nanowires we synthesized keep the same strength and stiffness of the bulk boron carbide but have super-elasticity. They are not only lightweight but also flexible. We should be able to fabricate much tougher body armors using this new technique. It could even be used to produce lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircrafts,” he added.
Li said that the physical properties of the new fabric are still being tested, but “from our preliminary results we can say the test have been very, very promising. We expect that the nanowires can capture a bullet,” Li said, according to Discovery News.
“The former T-shirt can also block other hazards as well, such as cancer-causing ultraviolet light from the sun and even life-threatening neutrons emitted by decaying radioactive materials,” added Dr. Xiaodong Li. [MSNBC and Physorg; image via DiscoveryOn]