Exploring Hydrogel Potential in Football Helmets

Presenter: Michael Nelson

Research Category: Physical and LIfe Sciences
Student Type: Undergraduate
PI: Jeffrey Sokoloff
Award Winner Category: Physical and Life Sciences

Collisions in football can result in serious head injuries due to large decelerations of the brain. Typical polyurethane padding found in helmets today can only compress to a certain degree before causing the head to reach a large maximum deceleration. A hydrogel that has been swollen with water can potentially reduce the peak deceleration of an impact and decelerate the skull more gradually. By examining how different gels react to a weight being dropped on them, we compared the compression of each gel to determine whether the peak deceleration was closer to the average deceleration in the gel, which is not the case for a typical foam padding. Our initial results for a 16mm thick double-network hydrogel sample produced a deceleration that was nearly constant. Each year as many as 3.8 million sports related concussions occur, most of them from football, and an unsettling number of them are among the youth in our nation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation confirmed that 91 out of 95 deceased NFL players that have been autopsied were found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. This certainly calls for helmet safety to be improved to reduce brain injuries. With a practical limit on how thick the padding inside a helmet can be, new materials must be tapped to increase player safety.