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Cadet, professor improve body armor technology

Tech. Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes/May 10, 2017

A cadet and professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy concocted a thick gel that can stop a bullet fired from a .44 Magnum.

Cadet 1st Class Hayley Weir and military and strategic studies professor Ryan Burke created the gel that enhances body armor when inserted into the right material.

They designed the materiel for the body armor, too. Their model uses 75-percent less fabric than typical military-style body armor, weighs far less and is half as thick.

So far, their invention has grabbed the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, various public and private research organizations including Intel Corp, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Success didn’t always seem to be in the cards, as the duo struggled to answer Weir’s original question that sparked the research: can a fiber coated with the right thickening fluid stop a bullet? According to published studies it can, but it took Weir and Burke more than 20 attempts over two months to design the right materiel and fluid.

“The goal was to create lightweight, flexible body armor,” Weir said.

‘Let’s do it’

Weir is a military and strategic studies major. Her concept took flight in 2014 when her chemistry professor challenged students to stop a speeding bullet with carbon fiber, Kevlar, and epoxy.

Weir wondered if she could create an armor that was thinner, lighter and flexible. Much of the body armor that stops or disperses the impact of a bullet is heavy and inflexible. The answer, she learned, combined chemistry, physics and material science and design.

She spent weeks researching material for a prototype. As for the fluid, Weir focused on non-Newtonian fluids that become solid when stressed.

“The fluid was the key component I was researching,” she said.

The research gained momentum, but there was a bump in the road. Weir needed to switch majors from materials chemistry to military and strategic studies.

“I’d already done six months of research on the project and I didn’t want to just toss that away,” she said.

It was then she met Burke. Burke holds a doctorate in public policy and knows how to research. To top it off, he’s a former Marine who is intimately familiar with body armor.

“It’s heavy, cumbersome and inflexible,” he said.

Still, Burke was ready to partner with Weir and give it a college try.

“When she came to me with this idea, I said ‘let’s do it,’” he said. “Even if it is a miserable failure, I was interested in trying.”

They started their work in April 2016. Weir’s conceptual knowledge and Burke’s research knowledge formed the foundation for their research.

“It is her concept,” Burke said. “I’ve become a self-educated chemist in some respects.”

Testing and more testing

Burke and Weir went to work testing different material and finding a safe place to store and handle potentially dangerous substances.

They began testing their prototype in October. They had the Academy’s firing range, bullets, weapons and a high-speed camera.

Weir believed the fluid inside the prototype body armor would harden upon a bullet’s impact and contained the bullet in the armor. They just needed to prove they were right.

For nearly two months, Weir shot dozens of prototypes with a 9mm pistol. Each prototype failed.

Twenty bullets went through 20 prototypes with little to no change in bullet speed.

“It was frustrating,” Weir said.

They watched the high-speed camera, went back to the drawing board and changed the materiel’s layering sequence.

“Alright, let’s not get our hopes up,” Burke said.

Weir considered giving up.

“Maybe there’s nothing here,” she remembers thinking.

Weir and Burke began another round of testing Dec. 9. Even with a clear sky and calm winds, they were hesitant.

Weir fired and Burke caught the playback on the camera.

“Hayley, I think it stopped it,” Burke said.

They replayed footage and gave each other “high fives.” For the first time, their prototype stopped a bullet.

“It was surreal,” Burke said.


The Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Blast Programs Technologies Group invited Weir and Burke to their ballistics testing range at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, where their prototype body armor stopped a .44 magnum bullet fired at close range.

The Tyndall research has produced 13 armor prototypes capable of stopping 9 mm, .40-caliber Smith and Wesson and .44 magnum pistol bullets fired at close range.

“We just combined different things that already existed and turned it into something that ended up working,” Weir said.

Weir and Burke are the only cadet and professor to achieve patent-pending status on a research project at the Academy this academic year. They have a year to improve the technology before filing for an official patent.

Weir said the effort was worth it.

“I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever done as a cadet,” she said.