Chain Mail-Inspired Smart Fabric Turns Rigid Under Pressure

In your day-to-day life, you probably don’t have to dodge and deflect arrows too often. (Unless you’re some kind of medieval YouTuber.) But that doesn’t mean we should give up on the notion of maneuverable armor. Or, at the very least, look into this new chain mail-inspired smart fabric that researchers created. This fabric helps to keep people safe, though more from back injuries than projectiles.

Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Caltech in the U.S. have invented a new chain mail-esque smart fabric. Assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Nanyang Tech, Wang Yifan, led the team. Together the scientists aimed to demonstrate the viability of “structured fabrics” consisting of “three-dimensional particles” arranged into layered chain mails. In essence, they were investigating smart fabrics with individual interlocking pieces that can change their shape but maintain rigidity.

A hand holding a modern-day chain mail made of gray plastic.

nature video

“Inspired by ancient chain mail armor, we used plastic hollow particles that are interlocked to enhance our tunable fabrics’ stiffness,” Yifan told New Atlas. This term, “tunable,” is not specific to this particular smart fabric. Rather, it refers to the ability to control these types of materials using electromagnetic fields. The use of such fields is one way to induce the smart chain mail to stiffen or relax.

As for Wang and his team’s chain mail, it actually works in conjunction with vacuum bags rather than magnetic fields. The full paper on the process is in the journal Nature. In the video at the top of this article, the researchers show how the fabric—consisting of “complex 3D particles” like the ones above—is able to loosen and stiffen when they seal it in a vacuum bag. While they admit this method is impractical, this prototype serves as a proof of concept. The fabric can even support up to two pounds of weight when stiff. This may not sound like a lot, however other smart fabrics are unable to support any weight.

A digital illustration of a worker carrying a box, aided by a small, chain mail exoskeleton on his back.

nature video

“To further increase the material’s stiffness and strength, we are now working on fabrics made from various metals including aluminum, which could be used for larger-scale industrial applications requiring higher load capacity, such as bridges or buildings,” Yifan told New Atlas. Indeed, it seems Yifan and his colleagues think this smart chain mail could even be good for futuristic exoskeletons. Although if it were up to us, we’d like to see other smart fabrics first. As another proof of concept, of course.

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