Better Material

July 12, 2018

Part of protecting football athletes from head injury is having proper equipment. But while many innovations have tried to make the exterior of the helmet safer, the interior has not made much progress over the years.

Although concussions in football have become a great concern, KKTV 11 News reports that the padding used in today’s helmets has not been updated from the foams, polymers, and plastics of 40 years ago. University of Colorado Denver Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Chris Yakacki, PhD, and his team at Impressio Inc., have set out to change this with a new type of helmet padding made from lab-developed liquid-crystal elastomers (LCEs).

“About 40 years ago, they came out with some great high-performance foams for that time—and that’s what everyone has been using in helmets since,” said Dr. Yakacki, who also worked with Colorado Associate Athletic Trainer Adam Holliday, MEd, LAT, ATC, CSCS, and Team Physician Sourav Poddar, MD, on this endeavor. “They have tried different ways of putting it inside the helmets, but it’s been basically the same. Our goal is to advance the material. The material is better so the performance should be better for all helmets. We want everyone who makes helmets to say, ‘Let’s use a better shock-absorbing material inside’ without having to totally redesign everything from the ground up.”

The LCE padding would go directly inside the helmet and act like natural tissue that is soft, absorbs energy, and is directionally dependent. Dr. Yakacki compares this material, deemed “anti-flubber,” to a rope which, when pulled, is strong in one direction and soft in the other.

In creating the padding, an important goal for Dr. Yakacki was to make something that players, coaches, and athletic programs would want to utilize.

“From an engineering standpoint, I could make a helmet three feet in diameter out of foam and it would work great,” he said. “But you would look like Sputnik or something, and the problem is no one would wear it. You don’t want to add things to the helmet.

“Our goal is to put [the LCE padding] in the helmet and [the players] won’t even notice we did anything different,” Dr. Yakacki continued. “(Players) are going to put it on and if anything, it will feel a little more comfortable because it’s softer. But the difference will be when you get impacted, it will absorb that energy a lot better.”

While the material isn’t completely finished, Dr. Yakacki hopes to have it ready to pass testing by the National Organizational Committee on Sports and Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) by the upcoming season. New standards soon to be released by the NOCSAE will use pistons in a machine to “punch” a helmet with sensors inside to measure the impact. To make sure their padding will pass, Dr. Yakacki and his team are putting together a similar machine at Colorado Denver.

“We’re hoping to have some preliminary results by the time football rolls back around,” he said. “We’d love when the season begins to be able to say, ‘Hey, we made these materials, we put them in helmets, tested them, and this is how they performed.’ We’ve gotten tremendous help from the state, [University of Colorado] and the NFL in helping fund us to do that."

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