FSU researcher’s light body armor may save soldiers’ lives

Okenwa Okoli

For Florida State University researcher Okenwa Okoli, testing his latest research is vital.

Okoli, an associate professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering in the Florida A&M University-Florida State College of Engineering, and his research team at FSU’s High-Performance Materials Institute (www.hpmi.net) have been working on bullet-proof body armor for U.S. military men and women.

"If I can wear it and it’s tested on me and it works, then yes, our soldiers can wear it," he said. "The military personnel utilizing this equipment need to maneuver very quickly, and as such, the less weight they have to carry around, the better."

Okoli has been working with nanotubes, a carbon-based material that is much smaller than a human hair but stronger than any material known to man. Nanotubes are derived from buckminsterfullerene, a unique carbon molecule that is both extraordinarily strong and light. FSU chemistry Professor Harold Kroto shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 with two colleagues, Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl Jr., who jointly discovered buckminsterfullerene, which is better known by its nickname, "buckyballs."

Okoli and a former colleague, Jim Thagard, developed a composite manufacturing process to create lightweight body armor using nanotubes that protects a soldier’s legs, arms and head. Metal traditionally has been used for such protective gear, but lightweight composite materials such as the ones produced by Okoli now can be used in place of heavier metals, he said.

Okoli currently is working with the U.S. Air Force to build bulletproof body armor for the force’s parajumpers.

"Because of the weight of the current body armor systems they have, it smacks them on the back," Okoli said. "And the momentum of jumping from such a great height and the weight of the plates throws them off target, one, and can injure them, two. So it’s not very user-friendly, even though they have to use it to protect themselves. Now, what we’ve done over the past year is create armor plates that are thinner and weigh less but still do the job."

Okoli said there are many universities nationwide looking at lighter solutions to bulky body armor so that soldiers can better do their job in the field. However, the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering leads the effort due to its work with nanotubes.