Amorphous metals and bulk metallic glasses for armor applications
Steel has many merits as a body armor material, foremost of which are its durability and its ability to be used in very thin sections. Sadly, we’re all familiar with its drawbacks, too — its high density and its near-total uselessness against armor piercing rounds — and not just those made with tungsten carbide cores, but also those rounds with cores of hardened tool steel. But what if steel’s merits could be enhanced, and its drawbacks reduced or eliminated? Recent advances in amorphous metal alloys, also known as bulk metallic glasses, might be just the thing.
Armor: Future – Boron Nitride Nanotubes
Boron Nitride Nanotubes for Armor Composites
Carbon nanotubes have been of broad engineering interest for 25 years. Practical applications, however, are still very few and far between — due primarily to the fact that CNTs like to form aggregates and clumps, which can dramatically impair the mechanical properties of composite materials. It can be extremely difficult to disentangle the nanotubes, and homogenize them within a matrix or spin them into a yarn, without damaging them. Where their incorporation into armor materials is concerned, there’s another problem: Carbon nanotubes are not oxidatively stable, they’re not chemically stable when used alongside certain elements such as iron, and they’re not thermally stable — in fact, they begin to degrade at just 400°C. For these reasons, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to meaningfully incorporate carbon nanotubes into ceramic and metal matrices. Even if chemical compatibility is assured, processing temperatures are always just too high.
It’s said that the development of ceramic armor can be traced back to 1918, to the final days of WWI, when British Army Major Neville Monroe Hopkins discovered that a plate of rolled homogeneous armor steel was much more resistant to penetration if covered with a thin layer of hard enamel. Over twenty-five years later, as Doron was being studied by the Monsanto Chemical Company in the final days of World War II, it was discovered that a solid plate of glass in front of a hard Doron plate was more effective than an equal weight of Doron plate alone. But the first truly modern ceramic armor system dates back to early 1963, and a patent filed by Richard Cook on behalf of the Goodyear Aerospace Corporation. This patent, entitled “Hard faced ceramic and plastic armor,” describes a piece of armor of essentially modern construction: A plate of alumina, or a mosaic of alumina tiles, over a backing of Doron fiberglass.
The first titanium alloys — including the famous Ti6Al4V, which now accounts for more than 50% of total titanium production — were developed in the USA in the late 40s. Shortly after their development, an assessment from Pitler and Hurlich noted that these new alloys showed promise at defeating small arms projectiles. Despite numerous subsequent investigations, experiments, and studies over the 1950s and 60s — which included the development of extremely hard (62HRc) alloys — titanium body armor was never issued to US or NATO soldiers. There is just one exception: River boat crews in Vietnam were issued a light titanium-nylon flak jacket, which was not intended to stop high-velocity projectiles; it was merely a lightweight analog of WWII’s steel-nylon aircrew flak jacket.
Over the ten-year period from roughly 1996-2006, titanium enjoyed a small resurgence in the US as an armor material: Several private US companies examined monolithic titanium body armor plates, the Army Research Labs investigated hot pressing titanium metal powders in 2005, and the now-defunct DragonSkin’s namesake armor vest made use of titanium-ceramic composite armor tiles. Ultimately, these efforts did not meet with much success.
Polymer composite armor
The first truly modern woven armor material — a laminate comprised of layers of woven glass fabric, impregnated with an ethyl cellulose resin, and bonded under high pressure — was invented by the Dow Chemical Company in May 1943. Initial reports were promising, and the Military Planning Division, Office of the Quartermaster General, under the command of Colonel Georges Doriot, launched the “Doron project” to find suitable applications for this new material. (“Dor” from the Colonel’s name, +”on”, from the generic ending for fibers such as rayon, nylon, cotton, etc.)
Doron was first used in battle in August 1944. The T37 flak vest for airmen was a straightforward design where the steel plates of the ubiquitous M1 flak jackets were replaced by flat hot-pressed Doron plates approximately 50mm square and 3.3mm thick. Later modifications utilized thicker, curved Doron plates. The T37 and its derivatives remained experimental, however; they were not adopted by the Air Force, as aluminum and nylon-based solutions were deemed more suitable for use at that time. The Army, following the Air Force’s lead, did not engage in further experiments with Doron over the last days of WWII.
Which is not to say that nobody was interested. The US Navy remained keenly interested in Doron, and pioneered its research and development in armor systems.
Two Naval officers, Lt. Commander Edward Corey and Lt. Commander Andrew Paul Webster, were the first to test the personal protective ability of Doron — and they did this in an unusual and brave, if not foolhardy, way: Lt.Cdr Corey wore Doron panels, with various backing materials, over his arms and held them in his hands, as Lt.Cdr Webster fired at him with a .45 pistol. A short account of their tests follows:
As the previous post noted at length, steel has been used in armor from ancient times. It is still the world’s most ubiquitous armor material, on account of its excellent mechanical properties, coupled with the fact that it is an extremely low-cost solution.
Steel body armor, as a means of defeating high velocity aimed projectiles, was extensively used in WWI. Its use was generally experimental, and the experiments generally received poor-to-middling feedback, thus at no point in the war was steel body armor common. Soldiers generally found it burdensome, and not worth the effort of wearing, which is little surprise, as the steel body armor of those days was both thick — regularly weighing in excess of 30lbs — and it offered imperfect protection, being roughly equivalent to the flak jacket of later eras. For these reasons, taken together, the use of steel armor was generally relegated to soldiers in more-or-less stationary positions: Sentries, machine gun crews, and sappers. Even so, the use of steel body armor was judged a failure, and its use all but disappeared in the days following WWI. 
To launch a blog about armor, I believe that it may be best to start with a review of its historical uses, from antiquity to World War I. The author of the following historical account, the very eminent armor expert and historian Bashford Dean, has already written such a review. It can hardly be improved upon, so I shall incorporate it in its entirety.
The author, in his own words, has sought to answer the following questions:
(A) What kinds of armor were early used?
(B) Was armor actually an important means of saving life and limb?
(C) How was it made?
(D) How was it tested?
(E) How heavy, irksome and even dangerous was it to wear?
(F) What in summary was its use in later times but prior to the Great War?
It should go without saying that the answers to these questions set the stage for the discussion of modern armor — and, what’s more, that the reasons for the disappearance of armor from the battlefield has much to teach the modern armorer. So although it might seem unusual to launch a technology blog with a thorough review of the now-distant past, Mr. Dean’s fine work should make it clear that our forefathers still have much to teach us, and their techniques and lessons are worth careful study.
I have taken the liberty of italicizing passages which I deem to be especially relevant.