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Nanotechnology being tested for next-gen body armor

Editor’s Note: A widely respected (and rightly so) national publication for entrepreneurs used language so goofy to describe early-stage testing of a new emerging technology for body armor that we’re reluctant to even quote it here on PoliceOne. What, besides three quarters of a ton of skepticism, comes to mind for you when you hear the term “Kevlar-killer”? Add your comments below — we want to hear from you.

A Concord, New Hampshire-based start-up called Nanocomp Technologies has been testing carbon nanotubes — a material allegedly lighter than plastic but “100 times stronger than steel” — for use in body armor designs of the future. The company says that its carbon nanotubes will help it accomplish its goal to “create products with revolutionary performance benefits.”

According to Fortune Small Business, one of the nation’s leading publications covering entrepreneurial news and technology innovations, at least 80 percent of Nanocomp’s revenue — an estimated $10 million for 2009 — comes from the Defense Department.

John Dorr, the Vice President of Business Development for Nanocomp told Police1 that while those numbers may not be totally accurate, “the vast majority of our business comes from DoD.”

In August 2008 the company was awarded a $1.5 million development contract from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts to develop its carbon nanotube technology for the purpose of improving military body armor. A month later, the company received the prestigious Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award. In a press announcement made at the time of the contract award, Nanocomp president and CEO Peter Antoinette said that his company wants “to create a new generation of lightweight, ballistic protection systems.”

Antoinette credited New Hampshire Senators John Sununu and Judd Gregg as well as Representative Paul Hodes with helping to secure the Pentagon contract that “enables our company to continue to work with the Army on this important project.”

“We’re funding them more than we’ve ever funded any fiber project,” Philip Cunniff, an engineer at the Army’s Natick Research, Development, and Engineering Center was quoted as saying in the Fortune Small Business article you can see in full by clicking here.

If Nanocomp is successful in its effort, it’s probable that body armor manufacturers will look closely at incorporating the company’s products into vests made from an array of materials. Most manufacturers are using both woven and non-woven materials, so the addition of another type of non-woven component is certainly not out of the question.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all sorts of materials. Woven materials are often placed at the outermost layers because they can arrest a bullet’s spin — non-woven materials generally are included more toward the interior of the design and provide excellent V-50s, particularly when evaluated on a protection-per-pound basis. On the downside, non-woven materials typically have to be “woken up,” presenting a slightly increased chance of first-shot penetration.

Bob Weber, Director of Ballistic Development for Safariland, told Police1 in an exclusive interview, “I wait in great anticipation for new materials that can improve the performance of our body armor. Technology is constantly advancing and we look at new developments in the market very closely. Some things end up not ever coming to market and some other things end up giving us a great new way to protect police officers.”

“We’re not suggesting you take a business card thick piece of material and call that a bullet-proof vest,” Dorr says. “We’re looking at how our materials will integrate into the different layers of things. We could provide an alternative to the Kevlar layer for some weight advantage reasons, or perhaps something else. That’s the core of the research — to understand where the fit is. In recent months we’ve had some very encouraging results that tell us that the investment the government has made with us and the investment we’ve made are starting to show promise.”

Nearly all law enforcement agencies report that they provide body armor to their officers, but only 59 percent of the agencies require their officers to wear body armor at least some of the time, according to a new report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington, D.C.-based police research and consulting organization. The report details the findings of a survey that PERF conducted in partnership with the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). The survey was sent to a large nationally representative sample of law enforcement agencies. Of all those who received the survey, 80 percent responded, for a total of 782 participating agencies.

Perhaps the research team’s most encouraging finding is that almost all agencies responding to the survey — 99 percent — ensure that body armor is made available to their officers.

Vendors in the body armor space today choose to use materials from an array of source-materials manufacturers, and companies like DuPont, Honeywell, and others are not going anywhere. The headline of the Fortune Small Business story — and other such hyperbolic marketing-speak set aside for the moment — the evolution of new body armor technology is good for police, as long as it’s proven effective well before it hits the streets.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.