Technology of the future
[b]I recently heard an interesting expression: ‘The best bullet-proof vest is one which bullets never hit’. Who would disagree? However, as long as conflict exists, soldiers need efficient protection. The standard Russian army model weighs over 15kg, while a soldier’s load tends to exceed 40kg: assault rifle, helmet, radio, night goggles and other equipment. It’s no easy task to fight with such a heavy burden on your back![/b]
Spider web, titan or ceramic?
The materials used to produce bullet-proof vests have been long debated, as has their construction. Some propose nano-technologies while arachnologists from California University advocate spider webs. Others vote exclusively for titanium steel.
Ceramic armoured plates are already manufactured in France, using complex, expensive and powerful press machines at temperatures of 1,000 degrees. The final product rivals steel. However, where a steel bullet-proof vest costs $500, the high-tech French equivalent costs over 1,000 Euros. To make them more affordable, Belarusian developers have chosen another method of processing.
It’s no secret that, during the Great Patriotic War, the creators of Soviet tanks used soft armour plating, which deflected shells (as long as they did not hit at a perpendicular angle); they simply slid along the surface of the vehicle. Using the same idea, the Belarusian State Agrarian University has joined the Institute of Technical Acoustics of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and the P.I. Masherov Vitebsk State University to create something similar with ceramic.
Initially, the technology was planned for non-military use, to replace expensive hard alloy metal cutting devices, as well as in the construction and metal mining industries. Scientists presented their innovation at the Milex Exhibition of Arms and Military Machinery in Minsk a decade ago, attracting the attention of the Belarusian military, who asked whether the idea could be adapted to create a lighter bullet-proof vest which retained its protective properties.
“At that time, we had the idea of creating a bullet-proof vest which would force a bullet to ricochet,” recollects Yuri Bokhan, one of its developers, and the Dean of P.I. Masherov Vitebsk State University’s Physics Department. “We proposed ‘assembly’ as if by ‘construction kit’.”
The external layer of the vest uses a 3mm thick ceramic plate which sends a bullet on an alternative trajectory. A second layer is made from ceramic balls or cylinders, with a soft filling (of secret formulation). This ensures the vest’s flexibility while the rounded surfaces help divert the bullet from its path. As a result, a lump of plumbum, rather than a bullet, reaches the third layer — another 3mm thick ceramic plate. The final penetrating plumbum penetrates the last layer of the ‘pie’ by no more than 1cm, into Kevlar fabric. It’s enough to save someone’s life, as proven by tests.
A 20x30cm armour plate has been produced from several small ceramic plates, as demonstrated at Vitebsk’s State University (each measuring 6.5x3cm and manufactured at a Russian factory). It can even be used to line integrated circuits in radio-electronics, while the balls and cylinders are made by Belarusian enterprises (usually used to crush clay when making tableware and other ceramic items). To ensure the bullet doesn’t penetrate any gap between plates, upper layer plates overlap the edges of the lower layer. Additionally, especially vulnerable areas are filled with balls or cylinders. The results of tests have astonished even the cynical military. At first, they refused to believe that a bullet shot from 25m away by a super-powerful Dragunov sniper rifle could ricochet off the vest; however, the facts speak for themselves.
The armoured plate ‘catches’ gun fire from a Kalashnikov assault rifle — 7 bullets of 5.45mm calibre; this provides third grade protection (in line with the Russian state standard GOST). To compare, first grade protection protects from knives and air rifles, while the second can save from a Makarov pistol. The fifth grade protects from machinegun fire.
“We didn’t aim to come closer to the fifth grade, as third grade protection is adequate for field military actions,” asserts Mr. Bokhan. “Since the specific weight of ceramic plates is 2.5 times lighter than steel, they should weigh no more than 10kg when complete.”
As no original components or expensive new equipment is required, the cost of the final product should be about $300.
Victor Dik, the Director of Minsk’s Technomag enterprise (specialising in the manufacture of bullet-proof vests) notes, “We’ve assisted developers with trials. Despite the USA and Israel being trendsetters in producing bullet-proof vests, Belarusian scientists have managed to achieve a level of protection beyond that of steel plates. This technology will prove essential.”
The research was financed as part of a Belarusian state programme and is likely to continue — probably, jointly with the Institute of Powder Metallurgy. Specialists note that the innovation is almost ready for mass production.
By Sergey Golesnik