US Navy researchers develop transparent armor

The transparent polymer armor consists of alternating layers of elastomeric polymer and a harder material substrate. Very small crystalline domains, which also provide rigidity, give the polymer its transparency. Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have developed and patented a transparent thermoplastic elastomer armor that will be lighter and capable of regeneration in the battlefield.

The armor will be made of thermoplastic elastomers, soft, rubbery polymers converted by physical means, rather than a chemical process, to a solid. Consequently, the solidification is reversible and enables damaged armor surfaces to be repaired “on the fly” in the field.

“Heating the material above the softening point — around 100 degrees Celsius — melts the small crystallites, enabling the fracture surfaces to melt together and reform via diffusion,” said Dr. Mike Roland, senior scientist, NRL Soft Matter Physics. “This can be accomplished with a hot plate, akin to an iron, that molds the newly-forming surface into a smooth, flat sheet with negligible effect on integrity.”

Up to now, NRL scientists have tested the use of polymeric materials as a coating to achieve improved impact resistance of hard substrates. Applying polyurea and polyisobutylene layers enhances the ballistic performance of armor and helmets, and achieves greater ballistic effectiveness and mitigation of blast waves.

By using a variation of employing thermoplastic elastomers, NRL scientists are able to recreate superior ballistic properties of polyurea and polyisobutylene coatings, with the added benefit of the material being transparent, lighter than conventional bullet-resistant glass, and repairable.

“Because of the dissipative properties of the elastomer, the damage due to a projectile strike is limited to the impact locus,” Roland said. “This means that the affect on visibility is almost inconsequential, and multi-hit protection is achieved.”

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