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Clever topology means this 3D-printed polymer is tough enough to stop a bullet

Jeff Fitlow

You’ve probably heard of 3D-printed guns, but how about a 3D-printed material that’s capable of stopping bullets in their tracks? That’s what researchers from Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering may have developed with a new polymer that’s almost as hard as diamonds despite being a lightweight material that’s full of holes.

The material is based on something called a tubulane, a complex structure of cross-linked carbon nanotubes first suggested by scientists in the early 1990s. Despite how theoretically exciting tubulanes might be, people have been unable to create them in reality. Using the idea as the basis for a polymer structure could well be the next best thing.

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In their demo, the Rice scientists used tubulanes as their inspiration to create scaled-up, 3D-printed polymer blocks that prove up to 10x more capable of stopping a bullet than a solid block of the same material, thanks to the unusual topology of its surface. While bullets fired at solid blocks would result in cracks propagating through the entire object, Rice’s 3D-printed material causes the bullets to get stuck in only the second layer of the structure.

Theoretical tubulanes inspire ultra hard polymers

“Nature uses topology as a tool to improve load-bearing capability or other mechanical properties — [such as] modulus or toughness — of architecture,” Rice alumnus Chandra Sekhar Tiwary, co-principal investigator on the project and now assistant professor at the Indian Institutes of Technology, told Digital Trends. “There are several examples of such phenomena. In current work, the complex topology are the key which is resulting in such improvement.”

It’s still early in the development process, but the team believes this work hints at a future in which printed structures of any size could feature “tunable” mechanical properties. “We have not looked at any specific application,” Tiwary said. “But yes, any porous component with high load-bearing requirement starting from fuel channel, bone, catalysis support, and many more can be explored.”

Next, the team plans to collaborate on finding potential applications, as well as examining other types of “exciting topology.”

A paper describing the work, titled “3D Printed Tubulanes as Lightweight Hypervelocity Impact Resistant Structures,” was recently published in the journal Small.

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