Summary of publishable results of the 1st period (15M)

Summary description of the project context and the main objectives.

The concept of SMARTPRO lies in the development of lightweight and flexible protective clothing, incorporating smart functionalities and designated for law enforcement authorities.

Up to now, research on the protective gear of this group concentrated on the ballistic properties of the body armour. However, in spite of the improvements, modern body armours still have some of the same drawbacks as the old ones, as they are mostly heavy, bulky and rigid. Therefore, they limit wearer’s mobility and agility and are impractical for use on joints, arms, legs etc. Moreover, body armours have traditionally been designed to protect the wearer against ballistic threats and, thus, they provide only a limited level of protection against knives, sharp blades or sharp tipped weapons. Recent studies, however, reveal that stab and puncture have become a main cause of police officers’ injuries. Therefore, there is an obvious need to develop materials that combine stab and ballistic protection, while retaining their flexibility and low weight.

In this context, SMARTPRO aims to develop optimized ballistic textiles – both woven and spacer knitted fabrics – and apply innovative surface treatments to improve their performance on an areal density basis. Thus, fewer fabric layers will be required, which is expected to result in increased flexibility and reduced weight of the armour. Alternative surface treatments include application of shear thickening fluids, dilatant powders, ceramic coatings, carbide and graphene-coated carbide particles and cross-linkable side functionalized aromatic polymers.

Main parameters to consider also include physiological comfort and ergonomic design. In fact, up to now, the increased physiological strain which is imposed by protective vests due to added load, increased clothing insulation and vapour resistance, has received limited attention, despite the fact that in many cases law enforcement officers refuse to wear their armour because of the acute discomfort induced by its impermeable components. In respect to the design, this should allow adaptation of the protection level to the risk level encountered in distinct situations. Therefore, modularity of the body armour is a key demand. Of course, the design should also consider the ergonomic requirements of the end users. Concerning the outer fabric of the body armour, its surface functionalization to provide self cleaning and de-polluting properties is herein proposed, in order to reduce maintenance requirements.

Additionally, smart functions, including positioning systems, will be integrated to further increase the efficiency of the body armour, eventually leading to reduced casualties.

Finally, while a main limitation is that existing protective gear is usually limited to the body armour, innovative solutions will be proposed for the protection of vulnerable body parts, other than the torso.

Description of the work performed in the first period.

During the first period of the project, different types of protective fabrics, including woven and 3D knitted ones, were developed using aramide yarns.

Selected fabrics were used as substrates for the application of alternative surface treatments, aiming to increase their efficiency on an areal density basis.

In particular, aiming to establish an optimized surface treatment using shear thickening fluids, polymeric and silica spherical colloids suspended in organic and aqueous solvents were explored for shear thickening applications. In parallel, early trials were performed in order to explore the application process of such fluids.

As an alternative treatment, ceramic and metallic materials were successfully deposited on protective fabrics, resulting in systems of single or double layers on aramide fabrics. The treated fabrics preserve their flexibility and stretching properties while the fabric texture is followed by the coating. Binary ceramic oxide compounds were synthesized both by the Atmospheric Plasma Spray technique (APS) and by a containerless laser melting technique in order to evaluate any differences in the atomic structure and the mechanical properties of the resulting materials. Moreover, stable ceramic oxide suspensions were developed using commercial powders, to be applied on protective fabrics by liquid plasma spray.

Commercially available carbide particles dispersed in a polyurethane resin were applied on protective textiles. It was found that the deposition of a nanoweb on the protective textile may significantly improve the dispersion of the nanoparticles, due to the high surface area and porosity it offers. In parallel, graphene-coated SiC particles were synthesized using an infrared laser. In order to produce higher amounts of graphene-coated SiC particles, Atmospheric Plasma Spraying was explored and was found to be a suitable technique for the fast and high-yield controlled graphitization of SiC particles.

Yet as another treatment, various aromatic copolymers bearing side cross-linkable double bonds were developed and applied on protective fabrics. Finally, protective textiles were also coated with graphene. Although this treatment was originally proposed for the development of conductive textiles, it was found that it may also increase the protective properties

In fact, alternatively treated protective fabrics were tested in terms of their stab resistance with positive results reported in some cases. Moving a step further, first trials to assemble a protective panel consisting of approximately 30 layers of fabrics – with different treatments – were performed. Some of the panels developed successfully passed the stab resistance tests, although some improvements still have to be made, mostly in terms of reducing the weight of the panel. Moreover, adequate ballistic resistance needs to be ensured.

A photocatalytic polymer, in particular modified polyetherether ketone, was synthesized and its synthesis was successfully scaled up. In the next period, this polymer will be applied on the outer fabric of the body armour, aiming to induce self-cleaning and de-polluting properties and, therefore, reduce maintenance requirements.

In the context of smart systems development conductive textiles were developed and characterized. The design and the production technology for textile antenna were developed, while possible concepts and suitable materials for sensors were identified. Finally, synthetic routes for the controlled growth of nanowire gas sensors were successfully developed.

In order to ensure that the body armours that will be developed will be accepted by the end-users, the users requirements were defined in detail and validated through a questionnaire survey and a dedicated workshop. These requirements concern not only the level of protection but also other issues, such as ergonomics. Preliminary work has started for the life cycle analysis of existing protective garments for law enforcement personnel, which will serve as a benchmark for comparison to the environmental impact of the new solutions developed in the project. Finally, early design concepts have been developed and communicated to the end users participating in the consortium.

Description of the expected final results and their potential impacts and use.

SMARTPRO is expected to result in the development of lightweight and flexible body armours, incorporating textile sensors and antennas and designated for use by law enforcement personnel. Therefore, the project will offer all intervention personnel greater protection and increased safety in their daily work, while contributing to a growing vibrant and globally competitive European security SME and industry sector and generate employment.

Although logic dictates the routine use of body armour, as supported also by a number of case studies and statistics, there are still those who do not wear it regularly, often despite of departmental legislations to do so. Those who do not wear armour, usually claim that its bulk and weight make it uncomfortable. In fact, impact protective equipment is required to provide lightweight gear allowing for extreme mobility and a high degree of protection, in addition to increased breathability and user comfort. Without such functionalities, emergency responders will be reluctant to use the equipment.

Despite considerable progress in utilizing nanomaterials and nanotechnology for security applications, significant effort is still required for these results to become technologically and commercially viable. One of the ways to speed up the process is to join, where possible, this effort with the development of conventional materials and technologies. For example, the use of shear thickening fluids and other surface treatments based on nanomaterials, as proposed in SMARTPRO, may provide greater protection on an areal density basis.

Similarly, the integration of ICT devices such as sensors to monitor vital body signs, or GPS units to provide rapid locational information to remote locations (such as command centres) into protective clothing, as anticipated in the project, offers many benefits to emergency responders.

Based on the above, through the development of lighter, more flexible body armours exhibiting adequate comfort properties, SMARTPRO will encourage the routine use of body armours. This, combined with the smart functionalities of the newly developed body armours is expected to contribute to a significant decrease in the number of police officers casualties.

Furthermore, SMARTPRO is expected to have a positive impact on the competitiveness of European security industrial sector. The market of protective textiles for emergency responders (including law enforcement personnel) is part of a larger market for personal protective equipment. Approximately 200.000 jobs are thought to exist in production of PPE and related industries, including 35.000-40.000 employees in firms providing related services. The EU market for PPE is estimated to worth 9.5-10 billion euros. According to EURATEX, € 8 billion per annum is related to PPE products and € 1.5-2 billion to PPE services (distribution, rental, cleaning). The importance of protective textiles is such that it has been identified as one of six lead markets in Europe, with technological and market developments offering the opportunity to renew a traditional industry.

In relation to the US, for the protective materials sector, the EU is ahead in terms of fundamental and applied research., However, US excel at commercialization, technology transfer, routes to market and “supporting mechanisms”, whereas EU has weaknesses in these areas.

Since 2000 the average growth rate of the global market for personal protective textiles has been estimated at approximately 3,5 % and it s expected that for the coming 10-15 years this growth rate will remain. Overall, the PPE market for first responders is a relatively stable market with limited demand growth. This is related to the fact that it is mainly a “replacement market” which corresponds to a stable number of policemen with a limited amount of new users.

However, the exploitation of SMARTPRO results may increase the exports of body armours from the EU and thus contribute to the generation of employment in the EU Security sector. It is worth noting that at the moment Europe is ranked 2nd in the global security market, after North America, with a market share between 25-35 %. SMARTPRO will contribute to 2020 strategy for “resource efficient Europe” by creating a competitive market through identification and creation of new opportunities for economic growth and greater innovation and ensuring the supply of essential resources.

Finally, it is anticipated that SMARTPRO results will create economic benefits through dual use applications since the materials developed for law enforcement may then be transferred to the general public, through their incorporation in protective gear for extreme sports or motorcyclists.