For centuries, humans have developed body armor to keep soldiers, law enforcement and high-profile figures out of harm's way. Cultures used the hardiest, most lightweight materials available to them – everything from wood to obsidian to steel.
Additionally, those methods that medical practitioners used to treat the wounds that occurred have also evolved over the ages. Often, these techniques involved some sort of sutures, bandaging or tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
But we are in the age of the polymer and it is that molecular shape-shifter that can provide both armor and wound treatment in the 21st century. In separate developments, teams of researchers are working on polymer-based solutions that would protect people from injury – and then treat that injury if it does happen.
"Polymers can provide both armor and wound treatment in the 21st century."
One polymer to prevent a wound…
In the military, polymer-based protective gear already plays an integral role. As the basis for brands like Kevlar and Spectra, polymer fibers combine ballistic strength with light weight to offer an ideal body armor solution, according to Phys.org. But weapons are also evolving, and there may well come a time when today's bulletproof vests are no match for modern weaponry.
Fortunately for our soldiers and police officers, the Army Research Laboratory is hard at work on developing a solution capable of withstanding the brute force that may soon come. The goal? To decode the ways polymer chemistry, microstructure and energy absorption interact with one another. The ARL established the Enterprise for Multiscale Research of Materials to tackle this challenge, and the results so far have been promising.
The EMRM can now analyze and model polymers at the molecular level under conditions of high pressure and temperature using high-power software. Eventually, the EMRM team hopes it can use this insight to create polyethylene – the key ingredient in some body armor – with an extremely high molecular weight to allow high performance under duress.
"This potential is unique, and it's development was made possible by combining the expertise in state of the art electronic calculations at ARL with the complementary experience at JHU on classical models of polymers," said Professor Mark Robbins of Johns Hopkins University, according to the source.
Other professors maintained that the simulation technology will open doors to a variety of theoretical material analysis of polymers and other compounds.
…and another polymer to heal it
Of course, all the body armor in the world won't prevent accidents from happening. Unfortunately, those in harm's way – be it a battlefield, a construction zone or mountaintop – run the risk of injury. For that, there is another polymer that may help save a wounded individual's life.
According to the University of Washington, most soldiers bleed to death before ever reaching the hospital. Tourniquets can stave off blood loss from the limbs, but a head or chest wound is much more difficult to treat. As a result, UW researchers created an intravenous polymer that helps blood clots to form and prevent hemorrhaging.
The initial tests found that 100 percent of lab rats injected with the product survived a typically-fatal injury to the femoral artery. Only 20 percent of rats given a natural protein that aids blood clot formation survived.
"Most of the patients who die from bleeding die quickly," said Dr. Nathan White, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, who co-authored the study. "This is something you could potentially put in a syringe inside a backpack and give right away to reduce blood loss and keep people alive long enough to make it to medical care."
As with any medical product – especially one that is to be injected into the blood stream – rigorous testing at an analytical laboratory will be necessary before it is widely available. But should it pass these tests, it could revolutionize treatment.