A team of MIT engineers is hoping to develop tomorrow's body armour today with a fish whose family tree stretches back 96 million years. Called the Polypterus senegalus, or "dinosaur eel" to layman schlubs like me, this primitive fish still thrives in the muddy rivers of Africa, and has retained a full-body suit of armoured scales that was common on species of fish millions of years ago. For years scientists have known that the eel's interlocking, millimeters-thick scales were capable of stopping penetrating attacks, but couldn't figure out why. Now, thanks to nanotechnology and a grant from the U.S. Army (go Joe!), they've figured it out.
The MIT engineers used nanotech to measure the thickness of a single scale (about 500 millionths of a meter thick), and decipher the makeup of its four different layer materials. They discovered that the materials, in tandem with the geometry and thickness of each layer, all contributed to a pretty amazing suit of armour.
They even tested the armour plating by "biting" scales that had been surgically removed from a living fish. What they discovered then was that P. senegalus armour will probably replace the bulky ceramic plates that adorn our fighting men and women in warzones today.
The P. senegalus armour kept the crack localised by forcing it to run in a circle around the penetration site, rather than spreading through the entire scale and leading to catastrophic failure, like many ceramic materials.
Lighter, thinner, and better? I think with those kinds of results soldiers and law enforcement officials alike could probably turn a blind eye to the fishy smell. Either that, or baking soda just became the next indispensable item in their arsenal next to bulletproof vests. [MIT]