All right folks, so you're probably going to need to help set me straight on this, but there were a couple of interesting presentations at the armor conference regarding nano-fibers -- particularly the construction of carbon fiber nano-tubes in a lab environment.
The impact on the body armor industry if this technology could be produced on a large scale is huge. One of my body armor buds told me if fully realized, "a big football player could flip a tank over" that's made out of the stuff.
The long and the short of it is that several researchers (particularly university labs) have been able to construct microscopic tubular structures out of carbon fiber and extrude them into long weaves of nanites. The stuff is incredibly lightweight, but stronger than steel. According to experts, if this stuff is wrapped around strands of aramid fibers like Kevlar, Dyneema or Spectra Shield, the ballistic resistance yield would be huge -- as would the weight reduction.
For example: I used two Level III plates during my last trip to Iraq that weighed about four pounds and were made of aramid materials like Dyneema [thank you to my bros at Protective Products who hooked me with the totally sweet set of 11014 plates. They saved my back and would have definately saved my butt if I'd needed them to]. There was no boron carbide (ceramic) plating in them at all. They could withstand a standard AK round, but not an armor piercing one.
With the nano-fibers, my understanding is that you could realize Level IV or even Level V ballistic protection with the same or less weight. If/when this technology is fully realized, imagine the applications for not just body armor, but armor for vehicles as well.
The researchers also mentioned the increased conductive properties of carbon nano-fibers, which could lead to armor and clothing with embedded telemetry, heating and cooling capability and even innovative Predator-like camouflaging.
But there's a down-side my armor expert warns. When the material is impacted, it results in emissions of carbon monoxide gas and microscopic particulates that could prove toxic if inhaled. One of the researchers presenting her work at the conference admitted this was a concern, but that research into the environmental effects of such a breakdown was so-far minimal. The Washington Post had a story on this phenomenon on Wednesday, citing a study that showed much higher cancer risk in mice injected with nano fibers.
Now this doesn't seem like much when applied to a body armor plate impact. But my buddy countered that if these things were part of vehicle armor, imagine the potentially toxic effluent if its struck by a massive IED or anti-armor round...
It's an amazing development that could revolutionize how we think about ballistic protection. But there's clearly still a long way to go before we can built that featherweight tank.