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Polymer power

U.S. Army turns to Case for lightweight, high-performance protection

To shield its soldiers from bullets and shrapnel, the U.S. Army needs body armor that is strong, light and economical. That’s a materials science challenge — and that falls into Case’s sweet spot. 

This summer, the Army awarded millions to a five-year project led by the Case School of Engineering to research new manufacturing approaches for lightweight, high-performance materials. Its initial investment of $5.4 million could grow to $11 million if the promise of the technology pans out. 

The project will be led by researchers in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering and includes a trio of industry partners, including Case spinoff PolymerPlus, a Cleveland-area startup that specializes in advanced polymer processing. 

The team will collaborate with staff at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Command’s Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, which is looking to tap into a Case expertise. 

The Case School of Engineering is home to the nation’s first stand-alone polymer department, founded in 1963 by Distinguished University Professor Eric Baer. Baer also established CLiPS, the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems, which pioneered nanolayered films to build high-performance materials.

It’s that science that attracted the Army, which is looking for a cheaper alternative to materials such as Kevlar, according to department chair Gary Wnek, PhD, the Joseph F. Toot Jr. Professor of Engineering.

“The army thinks our processing capabilities have great promise,” Wnek said. “We certainly have a tall order. There is a lot of pressure to deliver. But we intend to rise to the challenge.” 

Plans call for researchers to manufacture and test small runs of new polymer compositions in the Kent Hale Smith Building. They’ll then turn to PolymerPlus to scale up manufacturing. 

PolymerPlus was co-founded in 2010 by Baer and former students Michael Ponting, PhD ’10, and Deepak Langhe, PhD ’12. The company was recently acquired by Texas-based Peak Nanosystems, which is expanding local production capabilities. 

Army scientists are intrigued.

“Case Western Reserve University and PolymerPlus can continuously manufacture complex combinations of materials into unique structures that are difficult to generate even with sophisticated laboratory techniques,” Joseph Lenhart, chief of the Polymers Branch at the Army lab, said in a statement. 

“We see tremendous opportunities for improving the performance of protective systems and weapons,” he added. “Longer term, we are excited about the applications we have not even imagined.”

Gary Wnek, PhD

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