They intend to mimic sea snail shells. By alternating very thin layers of a hard chalk-like material with layers of its own sticky proteins (snail spittle, if you will), sea snails create shells that are tough, light and durable.
"We're taking state-of-the-art material and making it better," Rice said. "Our No. 1 need is to reduce the weight. Also, we're looking at fire retardency. Composites can burn. We're trying to formulate material that doesn't burn as readily."
In the longer term, Rice said, UDRI also will explore more exotic and costly nanotechnologies for improving armor, such as the use of carbon nanofibers — microscopic strands of carbon material that can be aligned and stacked to create exceptional strength with limited bulk and weight.
Hydrocarbon gases, such as those produced by burning coal, are used to "grow" carbon nanofibers. That's why UDRI is part of a plan to create a $280 million "mega-plant" in Lima that would turn Ohio coal into synthetic natural gas and jet fuel.
The U.S. Army awarded a $15 million contract for the development of a new type of lightweight composite armor based on nanotechnology.
The pact awarded to the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) this week will lead to new materials that can be used in vehicles and body armor.
"This is not a ground-level academic study project," UDRI engineer Brian Rice said. "We are actually working with two Ohio companies to create a product that, if it tests out well, could show up in Iraq next year."
The research would also likely lead to advances in protective materials for police and firefighters as well as other civilian applications such as vehicles, rail cars and wind-turbine blades.