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A Georgia Institute of Technology researcher has developed a process that increases the hardness and improves the ballistic performance of the material used by the U.S. military for body armor. The researcher's start-up company is commercializing the technology.
Boron carbide is the Defense Department's material of choice for body armor. It is the third hardest material on earth, yet it's extremely lightweight. But it has an Achilles heel that piqued the interest of Georgia Tech Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Robert Speyer five years ago.
He knew that the boron carbide powder used to form the armor had a reputation for poor performance during sintering -- a high-temperature process in which particles consolidate, without melting, to eliminate pores between them in the solid state. Poor sintering yields a more porous material that fractures more easily – not a good thing for a soldier depending on it to stop a bullet.
Military applications – body armor, in particular – would be Verco's first target market, and its potential is promising, Speyer noted. The U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., has conducted ballistic testing on a small boron carbide disk provided by Verco. Detailed results are classified, but the Army says they are encouraging. With a $75,000 grant from the center, Verco will produce 6- by 6-inch plates for more comprehensive military ballistic testing within the next few months.
Early next year, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland will be examining boron carbide materials (including complex shapes) they purchased from Verco. ARL is interested in Verco's potential ability to form complex shapes cost effectively.
Meanwhile, Verco expects to make thigh and shin plate prototypes in early 2006 for a Johnstown, Penn., company called Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC). The plates will be evaluated for use in CTC's Ballistic Gauntlet, a new lower-body armor product for use in military and commercial vehicles in war zones to protect against the pervasive threat of improvised explosive devices. It was the idea of CTC engineer Scott Burk, who recently served in the Persian Gulf for 21 months.
The company's current design calls for the Ballistic Gauntlet's thigh and shin plates to be made from titanium, but its cost has risen recently, and it's hard to form and heavier than boron carbide, Judson and Goldman said.