Innovation That Matters

The material is made of hollow plastic particles or 3D-printed aluminium. | Photo source NTU Singapore

Modern chain mail fabric could be used in futuristic exoskeletons


A team of researchers has created a fabric that can stiffen or relax to provide protection and support

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Spotted: Medieval knights wore chain mail armour for protection, and while this level of protection may once have been effective, it is completely impractical for modern armies and police. Researchers at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Caltech in the U.S. have invented a smart fabric that offers the protection and flexibility of chain mail, but without the weight. 

The team, led by Nanyang assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, Wang Yifan, developed the material while working to demonstrate the usefulness of “constructed fabrics”. These consist of layered “three-dimensional particles” which interlock, allowing them to change shape but retain their rigidity. The material is made of hollow plastic particles or 3D-printed aluminium.  

Unlike similar fabrics, which are “tuned” with electromagnetic fields, to make them stiffen or relax, the chain mail works in conjunction with vacuum bags. This is called jamming transition and is the same principle that causes a bag of vacuum-sealed rice to stiffen because the particles have no room to move. While it is not especially practical to zip oneself into a vacuum bag, the fabric can support up to two pounds of weight when stiff, which is more than any other smart fabric designed to date. 

Yifen reports that to further increase the material’s stiffness and strength, the team is “working on fabrics made from various metals including aluminium, which could be used for larger-scale industrial applications requiring higher load capacity, such as bridges or buildings.” 

Materials that change their properties in response to different stimuli could become an important part of many new innovations, from robotics to advanced aircraft. Already, we have seen examples of this technology, including a hydrogel as strong as Kevlar and clothing made from a reusable gel

Written By: Lisa Magloff

Explore more: Sustainability



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