Last week, the National Football League (NFL), Under Armour, GE and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the five winners of Head Health Challenge III, an open innovation competition to support the discovery, design and development of advanced materials that best absorb or dissipate impact. The competition is part of the larger Head Health Initiative – a four-year, $60 million collaboration between GE and the NFL, and one of three open innovation challenges to invest up to $20 million in research and technology development to better understand, identify and protect against brain injuries.

“The winning materials show a great deal of ingenuity in their approaches to energy absorption and have the potential to improve the next generation of protective systems,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Willie E. May. “Our NIST experts are looking forward to working with the winning research teams as they further develop their innovative materials.”

The new materials created for the challenge have the potential to improve the performance of protective gear, playing surfaces, and equipment for athletes, members of the military and others.

One of the five winners was the University of Michigan, whose researchers designed a lightweight, multi-layered composite that includes a viscoelastic (exhibiting both viscous and elastic characteristics when undergoing change) material. According to the University of Michigan, this material can be used to help limit the force and impulse of multiple and repeated impact events.

Ellen Arruda, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, and the principal investigator for the project, said that for what her team was trying to accomplish, composites were the natural choice.

“Composites are attractive in a design challenge … because they offer the flexibility of spatially tuning mechanical and physical properties to achieve optimal performance,” said Arruda.  “In our case we chose the mechanical and physical properties of each layer in the composite with great prejudice.”

Each of the winners will receive $250,000 to advance their work in developing state-of-the-art materials. A panel of leading experts in the field of materials science selected these five winners from 125 entries. One overall Head Health Challenge III winner will be selected from the five awardees to receive a $500,000 grand prize.