“This multidisciplinary approach to research truly sets USM apart from others,” said Dr. Scott Piland, assistant director and associate professor in the School of Kinesiology (formerly known as the School of Human Performance and Recreation) and a member of the team working on the contract. “We have the rare ability to not only develop and study new and exciting materials, but also to explore the relationship between the human-material interfaces. This is something very few research universities do very well. It is something, we feel, plays a large part of our success.”
The two-year research project that began on June 1 is to develop next generation helmet liner system which exceeds the blunt impact performance standard of current Army helmets in cold, ambient, and hot testing conditions. The work builds on the success of the team that developed the Southern Miss Pneumatic Cushioning helmet liner: Piland, Dr. Jeff Wiggins, director of the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials and Dr. Trent Gould, associate dean in the College of Health and professor in the School of Kinesiology.
USM partnered with Rawlings Sporting Goods to evaluate, test, develop, produce and sell Southern Miss Pneumatic Cushion liners in football helmets starting in 2011, which was independently rated in the May 2012 Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings as 5-Star highest performing helmet.
Wiggins said it is expected that materials formulations and designs resulting from this project will demonstrate broad applicability to other areas of the human body which require energy mitigating characteristics for injury protection. He said beyond the military, a broad array of applications among sports is available including not just liner systems for sport headgear, but also to body and on-field padding.
Preliminarily un-optimized prototypes demonstrated improvements over the existing U.S. Army foam padding system of more than 30 percent at ambient temperatures (70 degrees) and more than 60 percent at hot temperatures (130 degrees). Wiggins said these advancements are critical with the potential for providing enhanced cushioning performance over such a broad temperature range, a performance attribute crucial to protection, and a limiting factor for traditional foam padding systems.
The Southern Miss Pneumatic Cushion liner system is radically different from traditional foam pads that have been the basis of energy absorption in helmets for decades.
“It’s important to note that commercialization of our helmet cushioning has proven the technology is manufacturing-ready and reproducible in high volumes, the economics are in the same range as foams, and cushioning levels can be ‘tuned’ where foams generally cannot,” said Wiggins.
“This two-year program has the potential to yield substantial improvements in energy absorbing capabilities leading to new standards for military and civilian protection.”
Piland said foam is actually really good at what it is designed to do. This is why it is seen in so many different applications from pillows to car seats to protective devices and equipment. But two major areas that pose the greatest limitations to foam are:
1. The amount of space between the surface of the head and the surface of the helmet allowed for the foam to manage energy. American Football helmets have up to 1.5 inches of space, while Army helmets will typically fall within three quarters of an inch of space. The greater the space, the more materials to help mitigate the impact energies.
2. The broad temperature range required for use. Military deployments can occur nearly anywhere in the world.
“Army standards require that fielded helmet systems meet specific impact criteria,” Piland said.
“These standards encompass very low temperature and very high temperatures. Across this temperatures, the helmet system must only allow a predetermined amount of force to be transmitted to the head… Currently, materials used to make foams do not manage forces well at higher temperatures. Our system, which is not dependent upon these same types of materials, does not suffer the same design encumbrances. Also, the Army is working toward raising their standards to include high impact velocities.
As these standards are increased, traditional liner materials will no longer be viable.”
USM researchers have been evaluating this problem from various angles for the past decade.
“We have evaluated and characterized everything from concussion-related symptoms to functional effects upon balance to helmet system component performance,” Piland said.
“Since we began, a long-term goal for our team was to have a laboratory to fully investigate the head impact event. This project is the realization of that goal. Within the next few months, USM will house one of the most advanced head impact research facilities in the world. This facility will be equipped with a variety of technologies to include advanced instrumented headforms, high-speed cameras and testing machines that will allow us to replicate the full range of blunt impacts experienced by not only warfighters, but also athletes across a variety of sports.”
Piland said brain injuries, encompassing concussion, are at the forefront of common concern. Over the past decade, research efforts in the School of Kinesiology have been to better understand this injury, its mechanism, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
Gould said the primary goal of the cushioning research is to fully understand and characterize the human material interface related to protective helmets.
“I fully anticipate our efforts will substantially add to the daily expanding knowledge base of concussion and will facilitate positive prevention application for both athletes and warfighters,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said advances in helmet technology have the potential to be life changing for American service members, who are too often exposed to the debilitating aftereffects of severe brain injuries.
“I have great hope for this research,” Cochran said.
For more information about the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials at USM, call 601-266-4868 or visit: www.usm.edu/polymer. To learn more about the School of Kinesiology at Southern Miss, call 601.266.632 or visit: www.usm.edu/kinesiology.
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