Denver Broncos' Danny Trevathan, left, tackles Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch on Sunday during the second half of the Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J. Professional football players are struck in the head or neck at least once a game, said Dr. Keith Peters, a radiologist working on a system to build helmets that better absorb jarring impacts.
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Jeff Roberson

Denver Broncos' Danny Trevathan, left, tackles Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch on Sunday during the second half of the Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J. Professional football players are struck in the head or neck at least once a game, said Dr. Keith Peters, a radiologist working on a system to build helmets that better absorb jarring impacts.

Researchers seek safer helmets

By Jeff Schweers

The Gainesville Sun

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In a ground floor lab of the New Engineering Building at the University of Florida, Dr. Keith Peters, a radiologist, and Professor Ghatu Subhash, a mechanical engineer, are building the football helmet of the future.

They’ve spent several months at the Center for Dynamic Response of Advanced Materials dropping weights onto different types of foam padding material to test impact-absorption rates and tinkering with a system of fluid-filled reservoirs they said will absorb more blunt force than traditional materials.

Still in the early stages of development, the men aren’t ready yet to test the new system on humans. But they are optimistic that their design will work and that it eventually will replace the kind of padding used in today’s football helmets and other protective headgear.

The inspiration came from watching the illegal street-racing flick “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Peters said. In one scene, a car crashed into a barrier of water-filled canisters. The water exploded out of the canisters, dissipating the impact’s energy.

Unfortunately, that kind of impact barrier is a one-shot deal, he said.

Instead, Peters and Subhash devised a system combining a fluid-filled reservoir connected to an empty reservoir. When something hits the fluid-filled container, the fluid shoots into the empty reservoir, then slowly oozes back into the container, dramatically softening the impact.

“The device is not really different in size to standard padding,” Peters said. “This is using simple technology that should be able to fit together nicely” inside a helmet.

The technology is based in part on the work that Subhash has done over the last 15 years in improving protective gear for soldiers, firefighters and others in high-risk situations.

The researchers’ tests have shown that their fluid-filled pads absorb five times the impact of traditional padding. They estimate it will be one to two years before such a product is ready to be produced to retrofit helmets.

The padding decreases the direct impact from a blow to the head. But it doesn’t deal with the torquing, or rotational, impact from glancing blows. Once Subhash and Peters perfect their padding system, they will set their sights on designing the outer shell.

Preventing rotational impact would “require a redesign of the helmet itself,” Subhash said.

Subhash has been drawing schematics but has not gotten to developing a prototype helmet yet. Testing has been delayed and an infusion of investor dollars is needed to get them to the next level, Subhash said.

But the men hope the NFL and other sports organizations will take an interest in their research. Peters and Subhash estimated their designs could reduce head injuries by 40 percent or more.

That is a lot to consider, given that 340,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries occur each year, some of them permanent, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Professional football players are struck in the head or neck at least once a game, Peters also said.

Last year, the NFL agreed to pay out $765 million to settle a concussion lawsuit by 4,500 former players.

The time has come to revolutionize helmets, Peters and Subhash said. While helmets have evolved to protect heads from a deadly knee or elbow penetration to the skull, Peters said, there has been no advance in concussion protection since the early 20th century.

They also believe their improvements can be inexpensive for any type of helmet, such as for bicycle, football, police or fire protection.