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The United States Army Research Office has been funding researchers at the University of Buffalo to develop a novel form of lightweight armor to be worn by soldiers in combat. The inspiration for the new form of armor comes from pearls, as they are lightweight, yet dense.

Researchers have managed to develop a lightweight plastic by mimicking nacre, the outer coating of pearls. The new plastic developed is 14 times stronger than steel and 8 times lighter, thus making the material ideal for absorbing bullets and projectiles.

“The material is stiff, strong, and tough,” said the lead author for the concept’s research paper, Dr. Shenqiang Ren. “It could be applicable to vests, helmets, and other types of body armor, as well as protective armor for ships, helicopters, and other vehicles.”

Most of the material is made from a stronger version of the most common plastic, polyethylene. The material is called UltraHigh Molecular Weight Polyethylene, or UHMWPE for short.

When designing the material, researchers looked at nacre, which is created by mollusks forming calcium carbonate into an interlocking structure. Similarly to nacre, the material developed has a tough outer shell, but a flexible interior that is capable of deforming and absorbing projectiles. reports that UHMWPE would be easier to cast or mold into complicated shapes than steel or ceramic armor, therefore providing protection for soldiers, vehicles, and many other military assets.

Just like Kevlar, UHMWPE is considered soft armor, meaning tightly woven materials create a very strong net.

The researchers have also experimented by adding silica nanoparticles to the material to try to make it even stronger.