US Army’s High-Powered Skull Study May Yield Better Helmets

 In GDI, Land, Defense, Infrastructure, Air, Energy, Space

Protecting sol­diers’ brains is the ulti­mate aim of a joint effort by the Army Research Laboratory, Argonne National Lab, and Northwestern University.

Researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Army Research Laboratory, and Northwestern University are col­lect­ing and deci­pher­ing data from high energy x‑rays beamed onto human skulls to better grasp bone mechan­ics and devel­op smarter, more pro­tec­tive mil­i­tary hel­mets. 

Argonne’s X‑ray Science Division group leader and physi­cist Jonathan Almer told Nextgov how the lab’s Advanced Photon Source, or APS, is help­ing detect “unprece­dent­ed” new insights into the makeup of skulls and their respons­es to impacts.

“At the end of the day, if this leads to a better helmet that makes the people wear­ing them less sus­cep­ti­ble to injury — I mean, that’s the ulti­mate goal,” he said.

Launched in 1996, APS hosts more than 5,500 researchers each year from across the public, pri­vate, and aca­d­e­m­ic sec­tors to con­duct exper­i­ments in many areas, such as chem­istry and life sci­ences research, that could lead to the devel­op­ment of new mate­ri­als and life-saving drugs. They’re attract­ed to the facility’s deeply pen­e­trat­ing x‑rays that allow them to view the struc­ture of matter at a mol­e­c­u­lar and atomic level. Almer said the APS is like “a giant micro­scope” that uses high-energy x‑rays to see through mate­ri­als, sim­i­lar to the energy that doc­tors and den­tists employ for advanced views of their patients’ bones. 

“But ours are about a bil­lion times more bril­liant,” Almer said. “So that means that we can do things on time and space scales that most micro­scopes just couldn’t do.”

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Through an ongo­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with sci­en­tists from the lab, ARL and Northwestern, APS is being put to use to hone in on the microstruc­ture of the human skull. Experts are assess­ing how human-head bones respond to impacts, then using the x‑ray beam data to inform com­put­er models used by mil­i­tary offi­cials work­ing to devel­op advanced hel­mets for U.S. troops. Almer said ARL engi­neer Andrew Brown sub­mit­ted a pro­pos­al to access the facil­i­ty “with sci­en­tif­ic merit high enough for beam time” and Stuart Stock, a mate­ri­als sci­en­tist and fac­ul­ty member of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine with exten­sive exper­tise in imag­ing bone also later teamed up with Brown and Argonne researchers for the project.

In June, the researchers linked up for a 3‑day exper­i­ment, where they ran APS x‑rays non­stop on sam­ples of human skulls from all parts of the head and col­lect­ed about a ter­abyte of data on the bones’ struc­ture and direc­tion­al­i­ty. 

“The exper­i­ment was a pretty intense thing,” Almer said. “One of the key things that they wanted to under­stand — and which hadn’t been really revealed before — was how anisotrop­ic or direc­tion­al the bone was.”

The pow­er­ful x‑rays allowed the sci­en­tists to see large vol­umes of the skulls’ mate­ri­als down to the nanome­ter, an unprece­dent­ed view accord­ing to Almer. The sci­en­tists are still eval­u­at­ing data around min­er­al den­si­ties and prop­er­ties, but as the physi­cist men­tioned they did make more rapid dis­cov­er­ies around anisotropy, or how mechan­i­cal prop­er­ties vary depend­ing on ori­en­ta­tion. Some com­put­er models treat skull bones as isotrop­ic, or the same in all direc­tions, which the research quick­ly indi­cat­ed may not be the case. The sci­en­tists looked at bones that were unin­jured and had frac­tures, which helped them to see how energy dis­pers­es and strains unfold in the struc­ture when the skull is hit. 

The insights on anisotropy and data col­lect­ed will be applied to com­pu­ta­tion­al models to sup­port researchers’ under­stand­ing of how the bones behave and breaks dis­sem­i­nate, with the ulti­mate hope of cre­at­ing hel­mets that can halt that dis­sem­i­na­tion.

“Obviously, we want to pro­tect our most impor­tant organ — the brain — so by under­stand­ing the mechan­ics better, they can take this data and put it into models of skull mechan­ics, couple that with the helmet devel­op­ment, and put it all into one kind of pack­age to improve our sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to damage,” he said. “By more deeply under­stand­ing the bone mechan­ics we can build better hel­mets and better pro­tect sol­diers — and of course this has broad­er impli­ca­tions to hel­mets for bikes.”

APS also has ongo­ing research col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Air Force Research Lab, which uses the tools to study mate­ri­als that are rel­e­vant to aero­space, like tita­ni­um, alu­minum, and nickel. Almer said the stud­ies have made way for a unique piece of equip­ment that allows experts to apply mechan­i­cal load to the mate­ri­als being assessed, to sim­u­late the in-flight con­di­tions and ulti­mate­ly see how they deform. As the Army Research Lab’s exper­i­ments with the skull are ongo­ing, the physi­cist said, next, the team wants to apply that mechan­i­cal load system to the skull and sim­u­late a damage con­di­tion and see how the mate­ri­als behave. 

Having worked at Argonne for 20 years, Almer also noted how col­lab­o­ra­tions like these have blos­somed over the years. He said while it’s always been a user facil­i­ty, APS is evolv­ing to be much more acces­si­ble to people who don’t have spe­cial­ized back­grounds in x‑rays, but want to come in and col­lab­o­rate with researchers to apply the facility’s more than 60 pow­er­ful beams to their big ideas. He noted that the sci­en­tists from ARL were not x‑ray experts. 

“Probably 20 years ago it would have been dif­fi­cult to come here — we kind of built more infra­struc­ture in,” he said. 

The physi­cist said while it is pos­si­ble to make huge dis­cov­er­ies inde­pen­dent­ly, bring­ing in experts from many dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines to dive into one coop­er­a­tive project, like the cut­ting-edge approach to bol­ster­ing the pro­tec­tion of sol­diers’ heads, “really broad­ens the scope of it — and also the impact.” 

“We are help­ing a vari­ety of sci­en­tists from basi­cal­ly every sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­pline solve prob­lems, lead­ing to a lot of dis­cov­er­ies and break­throughs,” Almer said.

Source: Defense One

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