People wear helmets for a reason – our heads are just not strong enough for extreme sports, motorcycle crashes or other potentially dangerous activities. Meanwhile some fruits fall from tall trees and remained pretty much intact, despite the force on the impact. While these situations are not exactly comparable, it gave BMW an idea – what if we designed safety gear by looking at what nature can do?
BMW partnered with adidas, ORTEMA, phoenix and uvex, as well as number of science institutions from Germany in order to create a new generation of nature-inspired safety gear, such as helmets and body armour. And there is a lot to get inspired from. For example, pomelo fruit can fall from tall trees without suffering any damage and scales of fish and many reptiles overlap to create a composite system are highly effective form of protection against injuries. At first researchers analysed biological models, then they looked to materials we have and then they went on to create prototypes.
First attempts exceeded expectations. Not only this form of protection was stronger and more effective, it was also 20 % lighter and even saves material – gear could potentially be cheaper. But what BMW has to gain from it? Well, since it is a large industrial company, it can use this knowledge to increase safety of its employees, especially workers in production line. For example, gloves and inserts could be manufacturer using this technology to protect hands of the workers from sharp edges when handling car parts. BMW also has a sub-brand for motorcycles and could potentially manufacture motorcycle helmets and body armour. But other fields and companies could benefit from nature-inspired safety gear too. For example, athletes, such as skiers and American football players could be protected using materials derived from nature design.
This works because of some peculiar properties. An ordinary material thins down and gives way when it’s under pressure. Meanwhile rind of the pomelo is auxetic, which means that it hardens under pressure and becomes stronger. Furthermore, auxetic materials actually expand when they are stretched. Using composite materials to create auxetic structures allow manufacturing strong and impact-resistant things, but that is only part of the process. Protective gear cannot be too hard, because it will not be that effective. That is where scientists from various universities and other science institutions came in. They used these principles they learned during this research to make a foam material, which has auxetic properties. It has a cushioning, but distributes the force to material surrounding the site of impact.
Scientists and various industries look to nature for inspiration all the time. And it certainly pays off. This innovation can make safety gear lighter, more effective and cheaper – all thanks to pomelo fruit.