60-Second Science

Nanotubes May Make Best Bulletproof Vest

A thin vest of tiny carbon nanotubes may have the potential to stop bullets without even the bruising left by today's vest technology. Cynthia Graber reports.

Most bullet-proof materials that cops wear today work by spreading out the force of a bullet’s impact. But that can still cause bruises or even severe damage to internal organs. Now researchers at the University of Sydney are using nanotechnology to develop a vest that conjures up images of Superman—the bullets bounce away harmlessly. The researchers worked on the nanometer scale—one billionth of a meter—with carbon nanotubes.  A carbon nanotube is an atom thick-cylinder of graphite, like in pencil lead. They’re lightweight, extremely strong, and can absorb a great deal of energy.  But how do you optimize these properties to make a bulletproof vest?

Researchers tested how nanotubes of different sizes responded to impacts.  In place of bullets, they used tiny, super-hard diamonds.  Ironically, diamonds are just another arrangement of carbon atoms. Larger nanotubes worked best at deflecting the diamond projectiles. The nanotubes also quickly snapped back into position to deflect a second bullet that might hit the same spot. The study, published in the journal Nanotechnology, paves the way for a super-thin bulletproof vest of the future

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