Startup's Hybrid Body Armor Softens Blow to Troops

U.S. Military gear
In this file photo, Pfc. Kenneth Closs, right, and Staff Sgt. Demetreus Perez, left, both from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, walk on a dismounted patrol near Forward Operation Base Lane in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan, earlier this year. (Image credit: U.S. Army | Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini)

Modern body armor capable of stopping bullets still can't protect a soldier from the full force of a bullet's impact — a body trauma responsible for most U.S. military gunshot injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. That battlefield danger has driven one U.S. startup to create a lightweight, protective material worn under body armor, similar to how ancient warriors once wore padding beneath their chain mail or plate armor.

The "hybrid composite armor" can act as chest plates, shoulder panels, thigh pads, and arm and rib protectors along with body armor vests issued by the U.S. military, according to manufacturer MetCel. Ballistic tests showed that the combination of armor materials and a "honeycomb collapsible layer" can absorb 25 percent of the impact from bullets fired by weapons such as AK-47s.

"Behind armor blunt trauma (BABT) leads to internal bleeding, severe laceration, broken ribs and sometimes even death," said Amir Bhochhibhoya, co-founder of MetCel. "Reduction of BABT is a life-saving factor."

Such armor inserts have proved capable of softening the blow from multiple bullets fired by a Level III threat — a 7.62 mm round used in assault rifles popular with insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq — according to the armor classifications set out by the U.S. National Institute of Justice. They are also 10 percent lighter than existing armor inserts.

MetCel's body armor inserts protect soldiers against the blunt-force trauma of a bullet hitting body armor. (Image credit: MetCel)

"Through iterative ballistic testing over the past two years we have optimized the thickness of the armor insert, while enhancing wearer movement and comfort," Bhochhibhoya told InnovationNewsDaily.

The MetCel armor inserts come as a spinoff developed by Bhochhibhoya and his colleagues at Oklahoma State University since 2004. Their work had its origins in NASA materials development, but got a funding boost from the Naval Research Laboratory.

The team also won a $25,000 first place prize and "best technology" award in the 2010 RIATA Business Plan Competition held by the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University.

Now, MetCel represents one of 14 student teams participating in the Open Minds exhibition being held by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco tomorrow (March 23). The startup hopes to find additional funding to push its armor inserts through to the final production phase.

The MetCel co-founder advised fellow entrepreneurs to remain "diligent, disciplined and passionate about what they do," to learn from failure, and to always be willing to look for outside help. If his startup succeeds, it could make all the difference for a U.S. soldier or police officer in the coming years.

"There are organizations like NCIIA which can be of great help; not only to access the next dollar that you need to succeed, but also show the path for further development," Bhochhibhoya said.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.