New microlattice padding means less head injuries for football players, cyclists, and more

Technology |  2 min. read

Here’s some good news for your head, whatever you might be using it for.  A new helmet technology using “microlattice padding” promises a lot more protection for anyone wearing a helmet such as football players, bike riders, scooter riders, and even soldiers.

(Photo from HRL Laboratories)

And yes, the padding does go INSIDE the helmet.  It’s just outside in this photo so we can see it.

It took a team of scientists from HRL Laboratories, the Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency (DARPA) and the University of California at Santa Barbara to come up this new microlattice padding.  The open cell design absorbs a lot more impact and it lasts a lot longer too, compared to the best foam helmet padding out there right now.  It’s also a lot cooler on your head. The same latticework that makes it stronger, also lets more air circulate. And if you’ve ever worn a helmet for an afternoon or a day, you know that’s a good thing too.

The way this new microlattice is made seems pretty cool too.  Here’s how the HRL scientists describe it:  “a UV light is cast through a patterned template onto a tray of specially formulated liquid resin [that’s a petrochemical-derived polymer, and that’s our addition to this explanation.  “Petrochemical” by the way, means that it’s made from either oil or natural gas.].  The areas of resin exposed to the light, ‘cure’ and quickly grow into solid polymer struts that then grow together to form the lattice pad.”

And this isn’t just any liquid resin; no, it’s a highly complex copolymer that matches a thiol-ene with a urethane-acrylate. The thiol-ene is a big molecule that begins with a product called cyclopentadiene, which is a byproduct from cracking naphtha (another example of putting waste to good use). The urethane part of the urethane-acrylate can start with toluene or benzene, either of which go through a series of chemical reactions with nitrogen compounds. The acrylate part comes from propylene by way of acrylic acid.

But don’t be fooled by this simple explanation. Urethanes and acrylates are just functional groups that can be attached to a wide variety of different molecules. In this case we’re talking about names like methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, tricyclodecanedimethanol diacrylate, tris(2-hydroxyethyl)isocyanurate and dipentaerythritol pentaacrylate, just to name a few of the possibilities for this advanced microlattice structure. The key thing to remember is that all of these molecules and functional groups, no matter how big or small, begin with petrochemicals like toluene, propylene and benzene.

And that lattice pad could lead to better protection for our heads, our electronic gear (think internal shock absorbers), even our packages.  Nice.

The scientists put this breakthrough under the heading of “Elastomeric Microlattice Impact Attentuators” and the journal Matter has plenty more of the details under that very title, if you’d like to read up.