The best ideas are usually found in nature, and it turns out that holds true for protecting our bodies from injury. A research team at MIT recently unlocked the secret to the strength of conch shells and figured out how to engineer a similar material in the lab that's perfect for creating body armor and helmets.
As the video below explains, a conch shell's strength exists due to a three-tier structure. The grain in the bottom, middle, and top layers of the shell goes in different directions, meaning any cracks can't easily spread across the entire shell. The end result is a material that's highly resistant to impact damage.
Understanding the structure of the conch shell is only half of the problem, though. The other is figuring out how to reproduce it as a man-made material. That breakthrough came thanks to 3D printing, which allowed for an exact reproduction of the three-tier structure using a new zig-zag printing method.
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As MIT News points out, because the replication of this super strong material relies on 3D printing, it means body armor and helmets could be produced specifically designed for an individual. So not only do we get better armor, it's custom fit so as to ensure comfort and optimal protection.
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Impact-resistant gear needs to be tough and strong, which is typically achieved through a combination of metal and rubber. The conch shell material replaces both of those materials while adding the bonus of being custom fit. Where the military is concerned, 3D printing adds another bonus: it would allow for the printing of new armor and helmets as and when they were needed simply by having a 3D printer and the base materials present to make them.
For now, the viability of the material looks to have been proven, but more work needs to be done. The research team can 3D print flat blocks of this stuff, but curved surfaces provide a further challenge. Perfect that and conch shell body armour could become the new standard.
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