Future Developments: Nanotube Armor

Posted: March 5, 2014 in Future Developments
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From time to time, I will post information about the cutting edge, or recently developed armor technology. The first installment will focus on carbon nanotube armor.

Carbon nanotubes are a fairly new material, a dividend from the growing field of nanotechnology (the technology which focuses on nano-scale structures and engineering). Based off of the C60, or “Buckyball” molecule, nanotubes consist of sheets of carbon atoms rolled into tubular structures. This morphology gives them unheard of tensile strength, currently the highest of any known material. So strong are carbon nanotubes, that they are projected as being the only current material suitable for use in the tether ribbon for the upcoming Space Elevator (using unidirectional sheets of nanotubes in a ribbon 8 feet wide).

The major stumbling block to widespread use of this material in body armor is COST. Producing even a few ounces of nanotubes is still prohibitively expensive. And producing a continuous fiber that can then be woven into a cloth is still at least a decade away.

Even so, several companies have started marketing “Nanotube Armor,” which is, unfortunately, not 100% true. My assessment of these armors has shown them to consist of a ballistic package made up of UHMWPE laminates, with a single sheet of nanotube-doped UHMWPE on the strike face. While this enhanced material does have higher ballistic effectiveness, the armor is hampered by the known flaws and weaknesses inherent in the UHMWPE laminates.

There is one area that nanotubes can and do have a significant affect on armor, and that is hard-face armors. Several companies are currently producing ceramics (including Boron Carbide and Silicon Carbide) containing both nanotubes and other nano-scale high-strength whiskers. This acts, on a much smaller scale, as rebar in reinforced concrete, allow for an increase in fracture toughness of the ceramics, which in turn improves the protective qualities of the armor. This subject will be touched upon again, when hard armors are discussed.

Until next time…


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