Heads-up Helmet Research
Football helmets made from high-performance composites Clemson University

Clemson researchers, shown here in the lab, plan to test Innegra H multi-filament, high-modulus yarns to find the best composite for impact on football helmets.

Project: Football helmets made from high-performance composites
School: Clemson University
Location: Clemson, S.C.
Project Director: John DesJardins

As concerns about brain trauma in football players increase, a partnership with Clemson University bioengineering and packaging science researchers, Innegra Technologies and B&W Fiber Glass could create the next generation of safer football helmets using composite materials. Innegra-based composites are already used in hockey sticks, kayaks, windsurf boards and other high-impact applications. The team will evaluate if composites incorporating Innegra H yarns could better protect athletes’ heads in contact sports as well.

Innegra H combines Innegra S fibers with either carbon, glass, basalt or para-aramid fibers to create hybrid yarns; the team is testing which hybrid would be most effective for impact resistance in helmets. Innegra S fibers are tough, lightweight thermoplastic olefin fibers that have a higher elongation at break than most standard reinforcement fibers, says Elizabeth Cates, vice president of research at Innegra. This makes Innegra H particularly effective at absorbing impact energy.

“The higher elongation at break means that when the primary reinforcement fibers fail, the Innegra S fiber is still intact and can hold the structure together – a significant improvement in safety for FRP composites,” Cates says. “Our hope is that this property will translate into more effective energy absorption and dissipation, so that less of the energy of an impact is transmitted through the helmet to the wearer.”

Currently, professional and collegiate athletes wear helmets made with polycarbonate of varying thicknesses, and only one company designs football helmets with composites, say the Clemson researchers. Cates explains that the outer shell of football helmets was designed to prevent skull fractures from contact, and because football helmets do prevent most skull injuries, little thought had been given to the effect of impacts to the brain.