Businesses work on developing lighter, stronger armor 

Nick Adde

With body armor adding between 35 and 40 pounds to the loads soldiers must carry into combat, it stands to reason that Army leadership is pressing its industry partners to develop better systems. The armor has to get lighter, manufacturers hear from the Army. It has to provide at least as much protection as what is out there now – if not more.

“They all point to the ‘Iron Man’ outfit and say, ‘This is what we want,’” said Donald J. Bray, the business director of U.S. Armor America, the American subsidiary of Morgan Advanced Materials – a worldwide leader in armor and protective systems.

While no one really expects to see soldiers sporting camouflaged versions of Tony Stark’s suit anytime soon, two such companies at the 2013 Association of The United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition believe they are making significant inroads. 

Niagara Falls, N.Y.-based Saint-Gobain Inc., a long-time provider of ceramic plates used in a wide array of the Army’s body-armor packages, believes the future lies in development of non-carbide materials that are lighter in weight than the current carbide-based ones.

At present, the work on those materials is still in its experimental phase and under proprietary wraps, said Saint-Gobain spokesman Steve Elliott. In the meantime, silicon carbide and boron carbide continue to afford the best protection available.

 “We’re looking at different materials, and are seeking patents,” Elliott said. “Those materials are costly. But the idea is to find ways to do it so that with volume production, you can bring the cost down,” he said.

Morgan is developing a hybrid-composite ceramic material that is 10 percent to 15 percent lighter than the current ceramics, Bray said.

 “We’re optimizing composition. The key is figuring out how to develop the backing, and encapsulate that ceramic” in a viable body-armor configuration, Bray said.

The ceramic configuration still would stop and shatter the projectile; the back would hold the system together and prevent face-deformation that would cause internal injuries.

Saint-Gobain developers want to determine if different ceramic shapes other than square or rectangular plates – hexagons or spears, perhaps – would improve body-armor systems.

Computer modeling and close examinations of composite microstructure of materials is replacing the conventional testing regimen of build it, shoot it, and repeat, Elliott said.

“We’re trying to look at things empirically. What materials can you combine? There’s more science involved now than there used to be,” Elliott said.