Aug 28, 2017 | By Benedict

Engineers from the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering are using 3D printed armor inspired by lobsters to prevent sports injuries. The lobster-like printed armor could be particularly useful for preventing chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Consider the lobster. While humans have (just about) figured out how to crack the crustacean’s shell, the creature is a totally different proposition out in the ocean. Both lobsters and mantis shrimps have what is called chitin-based outer shells, whose structural fibers align in spirals that are constantly rotating. This “Bouligand-type” fiber alignment makes it hard for small cracks to expand into larger ones, making lobsters incredibly tough to break down.

And that’s exactly what USC Viterbi post-doctoral scholar Yang Yang noticed while struggling to get into the lobster he was eating for dinner: “I thought maybe there was some special structure involved that brings the lobster claws very high impact resistance,” he says.

But rather than let the experience ruin his restaurant experience, Yang decided to look closer at the crustacean shell—to see if it could inform his research at the university.

Turns out lobster shells are an excellent model for protective body armor.

According to Yang and colleagues, 3D printed body armor based on the complex Bouligand-type fiber alignment of lobster shells could go some way to preventing serious injuries, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which results from taking repeated blows to the head in sports like football and boxing.

CTE is serious in both the short-term and long-term. While nobody wants to take a heavy blow to the head in any circumstance, the long-term effects of constant bashing can include Parkinson's Disease, memory loss, and much more. It’s a really important discussion in American football and other sports that seems to have been put off for decades.

But making their 3D printed prototypes required the USC researchers to use a bit more than an off-the-shelf 3D printer. Their “electric-assisted 3D printing process,” which may be the first additive process to utilize an electrical field to alter its materials, aligns layers of material in physically resilient ways resembling a lobster shell.

This electricity-powered armor, made from plastic and carbon nanotubes, was then put to the test against a similar but non-electrified model, with excellent results for the more innovative design.

“The carbon nanotube is a microscale fiber, so basically when you try to pull it, you have a lot of fiber inside, so it’s reinforced, over a thousand times stronger than plastic,” Chen explains. “When you just add nanofibers to plastic, overall you get four times improvement in strength. And if we add and then align the same nanofibers with a 1000-volt electric field, you get eight times improvement in strength.”

The plan now is to turn the Lobster-inspired innovation into a more effective device for preventing sports injuries. This upgrading will involve making bigger devices, while also experimenting with biocompatible materials like hydrogels.

The researchers think their design could eventually allow athletes to have body parts 3D scanned, allowing for custom 3D printed protective gear.

The innovative 3D printing process could even lead to other exciting devices besides body armor: “The electrically assisted 3D printing provides a new tool to fabricate arbitrary 3D geometries with any nanofiber orientations," Chen says. "In addition to the reinforced structures, we believe this manufacturing capability offers tremendous possibilities for applications in aerospace, mechanical, and tissue engineering.”

Next time you struggle to break into a delicious lobster, don’t get frustrated. Just remember that the ultra-strong shell could soon be protecting your sporting heroes.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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