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Head Health Challenge

Failing Better: $2 Million Innovation Challenge Seeks Advanced Materials to Protect Football Players from Brain Injury

January 30, 2015
GE, the NFL, the sports performance brand Under Armour, and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have launched a new open innovation challenge seeking to protect athletes, soldiers and workers in dangerous jobs from traumatic brain injuries. The challenge will focus on developing advanced materials that can absorb or diffuse impact energy.
The challenge, which is open to anyone, will award up to $2 million to the most successful participants. Their materials will be independently tested by NIST, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

NIST will set up a battery of tests and testing protocols for the challenge, says Laurie Locascio, director of the institute’s Material Measurement Laboratory. Locascio is a bioengineer and her lab employs more than 1,000 material scientists, chemists, physicists and other researchers in Gaithersburg, Md., and Boulder, Colo. “We will determine the minimum set of tests required to identify the highest quality materials,” she says.

A simple example of making a material fail “better”: By fine-tuning the thickness of the connecting spokes in a sheet of acrylic, scientists can change how it transmits force when fractured. With thick spokes (left), fractures propagate in a straight line and concentrate the impact. Thin spokes (right) divert the fracture across the sheet, diffusing the impact. Image credit: Center for Hierarchical Materials Design

Locascio says her multidisciplinary team will draw upon extensive experience in materials characterization as well as forensic testing. “We’ve tested protective gear, Kevlar vests and body armor for police officers, for example, to see how they respond to new types of bullets,” she says.

But impact testing is just one tool in NIST’s arsenal. “We also use various imaging and analytical techniques to see what’s happening” inside the material, Locascio says.

Participants can start submitting their ideas now. The challenge will stay open until March 13, 2015.

Top image: A NIST research chemist uses an immersive 3D environment to analyze the structure of a smart gel material. Above: A NIST engineering technician examines a bullet-resistant vest being tested to ensure it meets minimum performance requirements. Image credit: NIST

The new challenge is part of the GE andNFL Head Health Initiative, which plans to invest $40 million in a research and development program focused on new brain imaging technologies to improve brain trauma diagnosis. The initiative also set aside further $20 million for several innovation challenges.

The winners of the first challenge, which looked at improving the diagnosis and prognosis of traumatic brain injuries, were announced in January 2014. The winners of the second challenge proposedexploring innovative ways for identifying and preventing brain injury,including virtual reality goggles, software and accelometers placed behind
athletes’ ears.

University of New Hampshire researcher Erik Swartz is placing pill-sized accelerometers, gyroscopes and other head sensors behind players’ ears to measure the effectiveness of Helmetless Tackling Training (HUTT), a training technique he developed to teach players to “keep their heads out of the game.” Image credit: University of New Hampshire