In the fantasy world of comic strips and movies we’ve often met the larger-than-life superhero (or villain) who can stand in the path of speeding bullets, merely for them to bounce harmlessly off his chest. Now, it looks as though real-world science has finally caught up with fiction by transforming a cheap T-shirt into lightweight body armour that is not only potentially capable of deflecting bullets but also acts as a shield against harmful ultraviolet rays and even the deadly emissions of decaying radioactive materials.
How to make a rock hard T-shirt (don’t try this at home)
The real-life superhero T-shirt started out as nothing more exotic than a plain white cotton T-shirt bought from Wal-Mart for just a few dollars by scientists at the University of Carolina. The T-shirt was cut into sections and immersed in a solution of powdered boron and a catalyst derived from nickel. After soaking the T-shirt for sixty minutes it was then placed in an oven and ‘cooked’ at temperatures in excess of 1000oC for four hours. A stream of Argon gas acted as a shield to prevent the T-shirt from burning, but in these extreme temperatures carbon in the cotton reacted and bonded with the boron to produce boron carbide. Thus, in a transformation worthy of Superman, a cheap and humble white T-shirt became a virtually invincible black boron-carbide T-shirt.
What’s so good about a boron carbide T-shirt?
Boron carbide is one of the hardest materials in the world; among its current uses are armour plating for military tanks and in heavy body armour used by soldiers and police. In these applications the boron carbide is both rigid and heavy, so the discovery that boron carbide can be transformed into a lightweight material – albeit not as flexible as the original cotton T-shirt, but still wearable – is nothing short of revolutionary. It’s still early days in the story of boron carbide garments, and for the foreseeable future lightweight Kevlar is likely to remain the body armour material of choice, but the scientists behind this new material anticipate a host of other practical uses for their superhero fabric.
From toughened T-shirts to transport technology
The key qualities of the new boron carbide T-shirt are its lightness, strength and flexibility. These properties could be immensely valuable in the construction of vehicles not only for military use but for the purposes of making domestic cars and passenger aircraft lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient without compromising safety.
Furthermore, the advanced protective qualities of the boron carbide T-shirt mean that it can be used as protective clothing in a range of environments such as fire-fighting or where there is a high risk of radioactivity. And since the new fabric is more flexible than current protective materials, additional layers may be added to increase protection levels.
So the next time you reach for a T-shirt, spare a thought for the fact that a humble garment that has been with us since the nineteenth century could also be the future of high-tech military armour and super-efficient transport.
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