February 25, 2015 | 3 Comments

American Football Helmet Polymer (Vijay Gupta & UCLA Research Team)

UCLA Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Vijay Gupta, along with students Brian Ramirez and Utkarsh Misra at the Institute for the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Divya Gupta of Harvard-Westlake, are in the process of testing their design of a lightweight, two-millimeter-thick polymer insert for sports helmets. The insert is made from a special polymer developed at UCLA, a variation of polyurethane (a polymer originally developed in the late 1950s to protect table surfaces) and EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam. When applied to the inner liner of a football helmet, the foam made using this polymer has been shown to decrease, by around 20 percent, the force from the type of impact an American football player traditionally sustains to his head, thereby reducing the probability of a concussion. In federal court documents provided to the United States District Court in a settlement dispute with retired players, the National Football League (NFL) has stated that nearly one in three of its retired players is expected to develop long-term cognitive problems related to head traumas sustained over their careers; such health issues are also likely to emerge at an earlier age than in the general population. With its lightweight and concealed application, Gupta’s polymer provides an additional degree of protection without affecting the current style of play.

Much of modern life hits us in the head–developments in politics, economics, warfare, and disease often possess all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the skull. Now imagine you are a football player: someone who’s supposed to get hit in the head. Imagine you’re supposed to sustain as many as seven hundred trauma-force head impacts in a football career, as one April 2014 Journal of Neurosurgery study on helmet design suggests is typical. “Stun” puts the situation too mildly.

Can design address such issues? Vijay Gupta, an engineering professor at UCLA, has shown that wafer-thin polymers inserted into football headgear can reduce the force of helmet-to-helmet impact–technically, by dissipating some of the force that results in shear deformation. A joint research project by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest universities has shown that the protective qualities of football helmets differ significantly, according to their design features. Researchers at the two colleges are now studying military helmets to see if the same obtains. We’ve always known it matters what you put into your head. It matters what you put on your head, too!

For gridiron football, the issue of reducing concussions is both an ethical and a legal one. Though all attention goes to the glamorous stars of the NFL, by numbers most football is played at youth and high-school levels, where the participants are, legally, children. University of Illinois researchers estimate that high-school football players sustain from 43,200 to 67,200 traumatic head injuries annually.

In a society increasingly based on education, having large numbers of boys harming each other’s heads simply cannot be good. Canadian researchers argue that this makes sports concussions a public-health issue, with legislation justified.

Gridiron football–and other concussion-prone sports like ice hockey, soccer, and diving–must reduce head-trauma risk, else they be legislated or litigated out of existence. Since most people don’t engage in these pursuits, do head-protection design and engineering offer any larger benefit to society?

Head injuries from falls off bicycles are about as common as sports head injuries; motorcycle riding is far more dangerous than driving a car, mostly owing to head risk. Bicycle and motorcycle use should be encouraged, as the former is good for health and the latter reduces fossil-fuel consumption. Making bicycles and motorcycles safer for riders would lead to significant public-policy gains.

The Western democracies send their militaries into battle with distressing frequency: whether or not that should be so, soldiers, sailors, and aircrew should wear the best possible headgear. Now think of images of the paramilitary police tactic units sent into the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Regardless of whether law enforcement should have paramilitary wings–journalist and author Radley Balko’s important book Rise of the Warrior Cop argues such units are almost never needed–the design aspect of huge, heavy RoboCop-style helmets visually communicates impersonal alienation, when what’s required is equipment that visually says, “Everyone please calm down.” Some research–by Gupta, by Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech, and by others–suggests that lighter helmets may provide better protection than heavy ones. If law enforcement wore light headgear into riot-control situations the optics would be much improved, which would be good for public safety.

Would all this lead to a light, comfortable fashion helmet we’d wear whenever going out in public? That seems improbable, but so are many fashion trends with which we have become familiar–and even adopted en masse.


Knowing the risks to participants, why do we still watch violent sports? Or is that why we watch?

  1. April 4, 2015, 3:13 am

    M. Dave "Doc" Mayer

    CEO Continental Scientific Research

    Dr. Vijay Gupta Phd
    Hello Dr. Gupta: Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is M.Dave “Doc” Mayer and I a a …”Maverick” Product Developer. Our …”Team Dominator” HAS developed, with a prototype, …”Breakthrough Football Helmet. that is 8 X safer than anything on the …Planet. We have a U.S. Patent Pending, that was recently filed by our patent Attorney Mr. Bruce Brunda – Esq. who is with the firm of …Stetina, Brunda, Garred, & Brucker out of Aliso Viejo, CA (949) 855 1246 ( Please see Web-site) We believe that we have found a major sports manufacturer who would produce our …Dominator SST Helmet. I believe that your liner would embellish our helmet to the extent, whereas every football helmet, now on the market would be ….”OBSOLETE! The reason for this memo, is to request a one hour meeting with you and your students/team plus the Principals at Architected Materials to share ideas and to see if we can put together a …Strategic Alliance! If you can send me your email and a phone number, and the best time to call you, I will send you some of the data on our …Confidential Intellectual Property! I will be in the West Los Angeles Area the week of April 13, 2015 and would prefer an early afternoon appointment if possible? You can look forward to a very pleasant surprise!
    Best regards,
    M. Dave “Doc” Mayer.

  2. May 23, 2015, 3:38 pm

    G. Malcolm Brown


    Football helmets are hard objects… they need not be hard on the outside, and can be a safer item on the field. With a frame or skeleton close to the head.. and support absorbing cells which function independently.
    The absorbing of forces by region reduces movement of the headgear ,, reduces concussions.


  3. September 28, 2016, 4:08 am

    Anna Tedstrom

    Design and Social Engagement Student

    As head trauma is an ever-increasing issue in contact sports and we’re learning more about the affects of repeated head trauma, I believe it’s necessary to keep looking for ways to design safer, higher functioning helmets. Contact sports are crucial to the success of international entertainment and conducive to child development. Humans are physical and emotional beings that need to let out their emotions in a violent or passionate manner. We need to thrash around, cry, compete, scream, and run sometimes. Sports are a way of doing this in an organized and controlled environment.
    As a kid I was full of pent up energy, I was competitive, agile, and aggressive in sports against other kids and the feats against myself. I can still feel the rush of excitement boil inside my core when asked to enter a competition, race, or pick-up soccer game. I want to show off, I guess, but more than that, I need to release that competitive energy. I think it relates back to our natural human needs for survival. When in the face of danger, we had to fight to come out on top, be that in hunting, or claiming space, property, and status. The entertainment aspect must have developed organically. People would pick sides during a fight but stay back as spectators and feel connected to one person involved. We still see this in street fights. Watching a fight keeps you at a distance from the danger of involvement. There are little to no repercussions but you still can feel the nervous energy build up inside you. You relate to those fighting and feel the danger that is at stake. Humans started to develop organized sports with high stakes as entertainment for rulers and high society leaders. We see this in Roman and Aztec civilizations where the prize would be power, fame, and freedom and the alternative would be death. As we evolved, we considered these stakes unfair, unjust, and inhumane. We lowered the stakes, created more rules to even out the play. We’ve sanctioned this violence and aggression to make it more lawful, organized, and acceptable. No one should die and no one should get permanently injured, and all play should be “just”. Within these rules we feel safe watching violent and aggressive choreography. We relish in the energy that watching builds up within us because it’s otherwise unacceptable to tap into these feelings and put actions behind them in our everyday environments.
    It is also important to consider other ways of resolving this issue outside of designing higher functioning helmets but rather rethinking the rules of play. Can we redesign the interaction between players that keeps them from bashing their heads into each other’s bodies or carelessly throwing each other onto the ground? This new play could introduce new skills relating to specific intention of defense and make the play more articulated and interesting to watch.