Building a Better Helmet
by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer
Originally in Tech Today July 22, 2008
Helmets are helpless against some of the most dangerous injuries in football. They protect players from direct impact, as when linemen slam head-on into each other like battling yaks. But when it comes to rotational impact, a helmet doesn't offer much more protection than a full head of hair.
What is rotational impact? Think of it as shaken baby syndrome all grown up. A slanting blow to the head can set the brain spinning ever so slightly inside the skull and damaging tissue. The resulting concussion has the power to put a player on the bench, in a wheelchair or even in the morgue.
To protect players from rotational impact, you need a different kind of helmet. Professor Gopal Jayaraman (MEEM) leads a multidisciplinary team that is building one.
Materials science and engineering majors Wayne Bell and Nikki Long are investigating materials to use in the helmet. Mechanical engineering PhD student David Labyak will test the design with help from ME undergraduate Rei Tangko. Professor Paul Nelson (SBE) and business administration major Eric Tangko are developing plans to market and promote the new helmet.
And Professor Allan Struthers (Mathematical Sciences) has developed mathematical models that predict how well different designs and materials will work. The designs of all current football helmets are based solely on trial and error.
The team is on the verge of building and testing several prototypes that mirror the protective mechanisms of the human head, earning it the unglamourous name of "biomorphic helmet."
"We mimic the structure of the head: the skull, the scalp and the spinal fluid," said Jayaraman. "They all protect the brain from direct and rotational impact, but in different ways. Our objective is to copy the biological system."
Grad student Labyak has been working on the project six years and has a personal stake that goes beyond earning his doctorate. "Sports have been a big part of my life, and I've had my bell rung playing football in high school," he said. "Also, I have three children, two girls and a boy, and they're all in sports."
Specifically, they all play hockey. While the biomorphic helmet is being built with football in mind, it could easily be adapted to the baseball diamond or the ice rink, a prospect that drives Labyak, whose son has a hearing loss that could be exacerbated by injury. "We're worried about him playing contact sports, because he could lose more of his hearing if he receives a blow to the head. This project hits home for me."
Not all head injuries occur in sports. "My mom and my brother run a motorcycle shop," said MSE undergrad Bell. "Some of their friends have died in motorcycle accidents."
Hoping to use his education to save lives, Bell sought out Jayaraman, only to find out that his dream research project was well under way and that he was welcome to participate. "This is a match made in heaven," he said.
Business student Eric Tangko also sees vast potential in parts of the world where people may not even have heard of the Super Bowl. "We'll be developing other markets," he said.
In particular, the team is looking at India and China, where scooters crowd the roadways. "It could be applicable for powered two-wheelers," said Jayaraman. "There are millions of cyclists in Asia."
The project has recently received a $15,500 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and has been awarded $4,500 from the Century II Endowed Equipment Fund. Additional support is being sought from the Michigan University Commercialization Initiative and other funding organizations.