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Could body armor inspired by fish scales replace Kevlar?

Posting in Technology

The sturdy armor of the dragon fish (Polypterus senegalus) has kept this tough, ancient species going for 96 million years – since the Cretaceous! Each scale that covers its long body has multiple layers – if the fish is injured, each layer cracks in a different pattern, allowing the scale to stay intact as a whole.

Knights of yore wore armor made of tough, interlocking scales. Now, developers of armor for future soldiers might also be looking for scaly inspiration. New Scientist reports.

  • Scales near the flexible parts of the fish (like the tail) are small and allow the fish to bend.
  • Those on the side are larger and more rigid to help protect internal organs; their joints fit together tightly so that each peg reinforces the next scale (rather than allowing it to flex).

This combination of flexibility and strength is perfect for human armor, says MIT’s Swati Varshney.

She and colleagues performed X-ray scans of the scales, reconstructed the shapes, and then worked out how they slotted together. Then they created computer models of different scale types, and using a 3D printer, they printed a sheet of 144 interlocking scales out of a rigid material for an early prototype.

The team wants to develop a full suit of fish-scale body armor -- rigid and strong across the torso, more flexible towards the joints -- for the U.S. military that could replace the heavy Kevlar ones being used.

The work was presented at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in San Francisco earlier this month.

[New Scientist]

Image: month-old Polypterus senegalus from Aquarium Advice

— By on January 28, 2013, 3:34 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure