HomeMIT Scientists Developing Flexible Body Armor from Lobster Exoskeleton

MIT Scientists Developing Flexible Body Armor from Lobster Exoskeleton

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology feel certain that the soft membrane that covers the joints and abdomen of lobsters could ultimately lead to a revolutionary new type of body armor. MIT scientists are now using this membrane to develop flexible body armor intended to cover the elbows and knees of humans.

The goal is to develop a highly innovative type of body armor that is both flexible and strong. Although the shield would mostly consist of water, it would be strong enough to stave off mechanical penetration.

The idea is to create a very strong, yet soft and stretchy type of body armor so that the wearer can easily move their entire body, including joints. This would protect the wearer whether they’re walking on the ground, climbing up hills, swimming through water or running to escape danger.

This might sound like something you’d see a superhero wearing in a blockbuster film, but it’s actually a description of parts of the exoskeleton of lobsters.

Researchers at MIT and Harvard are convinced that the soft membrane that covers a lobster’s joints and abdomen – a substance as tough a industrial-grade rubber, the kind that tires are made of – could be the secret ingredient enabling the development of a highly flexible type of body armor.

The scientists’ findings were recently published in the journal Acta Materialia. 

Ming Guo, Assistant Professor in MIT’s d’Arbeloff Career Development Center in the department of mechanical engineering, told MIT News, “We think our research could spur on flexible armor design.” He noted that lobsters’ soft membrane has allowed it to survive for over 100 million years on Earth. “If you could use this to make armor, wearers could achieve full joint movement and feel far more comfortable.”

Officers in law enforcement commonly wear body armor (ballistic vests) and these vests have protected thousands of officers from being injured or killed by handgun and rifle fire, says the National Institute of Justice. However, these vests do pose some challenges.

In 2017 The Washington Post reported that Kevlar, a commonly used material in body armor panels meant to stop handgun rounds, comes with an expiration date. Kevlar panels typically last just five years. Another challenge is that body armor is often ill fitting, especially for females who should be custom fitted, according to NIJ.

There have also been studies that have revealed that body armor may impair the focus and marksmanship of the wearer and add to the “psychological stress of completing the task at hand.” Although body armor provides much needed protection it also increases the wearer’s risk. This is the conclusion of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

MIT researchers think that the exoskeleton from lobsters may provide the solution to what has plagued the most innovative of body armors, which is the more mobility it provides, the less protection it offers.

Guo explained to MIT News that he first became inspired to develop body armor when he just happened to be eating a lobster. He noticed that the animal’s belly membrane was nearly impossible to chew. Although the lobster’s bone-like shell can be cracked, its softer tissues were quite a mystery to him, he said.

Once his research team began dissecting those tissues they discovered something surprising. When they cut into the membrane itself, the elasticity remained intact. They concluded that the membrane’s strength and elasticity is the result of its very unique structure. The membrane consists of tens of thousands of separate layers, which they compared to plywood.

Those layers are made up of fibers that allow the membrane to dissipate energy when under attack or stress. This makes it particularly “damage tolerant,” according to MIT researchers.

“The knowledge gained from studying the soft membrane of lobsters has led to the possibility of developing a soft synthetic material that is strong and tough enough to be reliable under severe mechanical conditions. This includes a flexible body armor that provides full-body protection while offering increased limb mobility,” the research study said.

Guo explained to MIT News that a material should be able to be designed that replicates the flexibility and strength of lobster membranes and that it could also be used in tissue engineering and soft robotics.

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