Football helmets are no longer what they used to be. And while this phrase is used most of the time to describe how things used to be good, in this case it certainly isn’t.
Helmets are, in some ways, the most important protective gear soccer players wear on the grate. Over the years, they have evolved from the leather headshell of yesteryear to capitalize on breakthroughs in the field of materials science. Today’s four major helmet manufacturers include the comparative newcomers such as VICIS and Xenith as well as the well-known brands Schutt and Riddell.
But who does the NFL turn to when it comes to re-thinking the way helmets are made and designed? not for the sake of a fresh aesthetic, but to fundamentally improve protection in order to preserve the careers and well-being of today’s (and tomorrow) players? As it turns out, the answer includes research labs like the Smart Materials and Biomechanics Lab at the University of Colorado, Denver.
The group, led by associate professor and self-proclaimed polymer dork, Chris Yakacki, has worked hard to invent a new protective material for the next generation of soccer players. And it’s about cutting edge technology and the power of evolutionary science to help.
Reinvent the helmet
Back in June 2020, the National Football League and Football Research, Inc., a medical organization that investigates soccer injuries, donated a spin-off from the University of Colorado, Denver, named Impressio, half a million dollars ($ 491,999 if you are exactly want to be) in support of his work to create innovative helmet prototypes.
These are submitted as part of the NFL Helmet Challenge, an open competition that tries to make helmets significantly better than those currently used on the grate. The deadline for this challenge is July 2021 and the winner will receive a cool $ 1 million for their troubles. Provided it can solve the problem.
“They are calling for a 30% improvement in reducing the impact of helmets,” Yakacki said. “I think the only way you’ll do is not always use the same materials. Anyone entering this traditional foam and polycarbonate competition … well, we’ve been studying this stuff for 50 years. [We need something new.]”
The University of Colorado solution does not require a complete redesign of the football helmet. “There’s a wonderful SpongeBob SquarePants episode where he puts a giant foam helmet three feet in diameter on his head,” laughed Yakacki. “I think that would solve the problem.” However, he conceded that outside of its obvious security benefit, this likely wouldn’t get particularly good feedback.
As with a new smartphone that looks similar to last year’s model but hides a ton of exciting new tech under the hood, most of the innovation in the team’s new helmet will take place inside: specifically with the material that lines the helmet.
Designs inspired by nature
Nature has already shown us the evolutionarily most appropriate shock absorbers in the form of muscles that expand and contract to absorb the energy of impact, such as when a person lands from a jump or runs and hits their feet against the sidewalk. So far, however, we have not been able to replicate this structure with the materials available to us. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, and an innovative material called liquid crystal elastomers are changing that. Muscle biomimicry is now possible.
Liquid crystal elastomers, which have long been studied by Yakacki and colleagues, are a rubberized version of the liquid crystal materials found in LCD televisions and computer monitors. They respond to light or heat in a dynamic way, much like muscles work. By using a 3D printer to print this material in a biomimetic pattern that resembles muscle fibers under a microscope, Yakacki believes it will be possible to create the safest, most shock-absorbing helmet ever.
“When you see some of these designs, it immediately becomes clear that you can never do this with injection molding,” he said. “It’s such an intricate cobweb of struts that it could never be worked like that. No shape could be edited this way. It would be literally impossible. Machinists would just laugh you out of the building. Some of our designs just have hundreds of struts, those little interconnected beams. It’s just impossible [without 3D printing]. ”
The team hasn’t released exact numbers on their progress yet, but Yakacki is optimistic. “I can’t give too many numbers right now [from our lab]”he said.” But I will say that we are very confident that we can make these improvements in impact. “
Get to a soccer game (and wherever a helmet is needed) near you very soon.