Safer helmets may help reduce football concussions

Written by
UCLA engineering professor Vijay Gupta and the football helmet and polymer material used in his experiments. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

The NFL last week settled lawsuits with more than 4,500 former players, paying out $765 million.

Some of those players are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or depression, and say the NFL hid information about the long-term risks of concussions.

That’s certainly not the end of the NFL’s problems. Another lawsuit was filed last weekend against the league and a helmet manufacturer.

They might find some solace in the fact that a UCLA research team is working on a solution to reduce all those concussions.

Vijay Gupta is a professor of materials science and engineering at the UCLA Engineering school. He’s developed a very thin, very strong polymer that goes inside the helmet, between the foam padding and the player’s skull, and it can reduce the impact of a blow by quite a bit – about 25 percent.

This drop tower uses a hydraulic piston and sensor to measure the impact of a sudden force on a football helmet.
This drop tower uses a hydraulic piston and sensor to measure the impact of a sudden force on a football helmet. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The polymer is tested by using a drop tower, about the size of a grandfather clock. The helmet is placed at the bottom, and a piston is dropped onto it. There’s a sensor underneath the helmet, that can then measure the force of the impact.

I watched them do the test twice, once with the protective material and once without. The first one measured 46.4 Gs, the second 70 Gs. For comparison, 80 Gs is about the intensity of a high impact tackle, which has about an 85 percent probability of leading to a concussion.

Gupta grew up in India and played cricket as a child, but went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lived in Boston the year the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics all did amazingly well, and lived with football fanatics and got into sports. He actually developed this material while working for the U.S. Navy, and then used it to see if he could help soldiers withstand the force of explosions. But he says the shock wave of an explosion is much faster than a football impact, so he’s also using high-speed lasers to test how effective this polymer material would be in absorbing those kinds of blasts.

Gupta says the technology is pretty straightforward and can be placed by helmet manufacturers and teams inside football helmets fairly quickly and cheaply. That’s if they’re just sticking the pads onto the inside of the helmet. If they wanted to make new helmets using that material, that’d obviously take longer. He sees many other applications for the material, including in motorcycle and bicycle helmets, as well as running shoes.