A mechanical engineering Ph.D. student created the foam to better measure the force of impact to the head.

By Daniel Rapaport
September 21, 2017

On a day where the discovery of severe CTE in Aaron Hernandez's brain served as a sobering reminder of the dangers of football, news coming out of Brigham Young University paints a more optimistic picture of the sport's future. 

Jake Merrell, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at BYU, and a team of researchers have created a nano composite "smartfoam" that measures the impact of a hit via electrical signals. 

The foam, which could replace the existing foam in football helmets, measures for impact energy, impact velocity and acceleration and can send the information instantly to a tablet. Each NFL game has an independent neurologist on site who evaluates players in concussion protocol, and it is feasible that the neurologist could analyze the data from the helmet. A more detailed explanation of how the foam does what it does:

When the foam is compressed, nickel nano-particles rub against the foam, creating static electric charge, similar to when you rub a balloon against your hair. That charge is then collected through a conductive electrode in the foam, measured by a microcomputer, and transmitted to a computer or smart device. A hard hit spikes the voltage, while small impacts result in a reduced spike in voltage.

In addition to teaching safer tackling methods and creating rules that protect player safety, another avenue for the NFL to create a safer game is for advancements in helmet technology like this one. The league has invested in concussion-reducing technologies, most of which aim to reduce the force of impact on the brain. The technology developed at BYU is different because it does not aim to reduce impact but to accurately measure it. Ideally, the helmets of the future will be filled with foam (or some other material) that both softens impact, but also is embedded with microtechnology that measures the impact that does take place. 

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