Smart materials are set to become an $80.21bn market by 2022, promising huge developments in sectors as broad as packaging and sports. They are also stated to have a significant impact on medical diagnosis and treatment, but could they also be used to prevent health issues occurring in the first place?
As a researcher at Imperial College turned entrepreneur, I aimed to develop a new material to do just that. Armourgel ®, a smart shock-absorbing gel, detects and absorbs the force from falls or impacts, protecting people from serious injury.
A primary application for the material is in protective clothing for the elderly, to help prevent the more than 70,000 hip fractures that occur each year in the UK. My team at Armourgel Ltd have used this novel material to develop a hip protector for the elderly that dramatically improves the patient outcomes following a fall. The material works by detecting a change in strain when it hits another surface, which causes it to change its state from flexible to rigid, absorbing the energy of the impact. It then returns to its original state; ‘re-healing’ itself which means it can protect against multiple falls.
Armourgel delivers almost double the absorption of impact than other products on the market for the same thickness, so can be made much thinner. Currently the protector as a whole comes to around 9mm thick at its thickest point, but it is contoured and scaled for the user’s BMI. What’s more, the Armourgel itself is encased in a 3D-knitted garment that has no seams meaning it is more comfortable for the user, and can be worn under existing clothing. Using such manufacturing techniques allows products to be tailored. For example, the stretch can be tuned so that the protective Armourgel always stays where it’s supposed to be, even when the user sits down.
The protector is much more than a piece of clothing, however. One version we are developing also contains embedded electronics that, using a suite of sensors, can detect a user’s fall and send an alarm to emergency services or next of kin. These electronics can also be used to monitor gait and distance walked by the user, which can be built up to form a picture of the user’s routine and detect changes or deteriorations that can act as an early warning system for falls. So, for example if a person is usually very mobile but is walking shorter distances, more slowly, the protector could detect that and send the data on to an external source to provide support before the situation worsens.
I was awarded an Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2014, to give me the practical and financial support to spin out Armourgel from an idea into a business. Since then, we have been awarded both a phase 1 and phase 2 small business research initiative (SBRI) feasibility study funded by the NHS. Considering that falls cost the NHS over £2 billion a year, a preventative technology like this one could have a significant impact on health service resources. The product has just passed beta trials conducted in nursing homes and assisted living and will be undergoing further trials in 2016. We aim to have the hip protector product available by the end of the year.
The Armourgel material also has applications well beyond protecting the elderly. We are already selling protection products to the extreme sports sector, including skiing, cycling and motorcycling. We have recently received funding from the Welsh Assembly to develop an advanced helmet liner that improves the performance of helmets by up to 50%, making them much safer.
Decades ago, no one wore a seatbelt – a concept that is now unthinkable. More recently, helmets have become almost ubiquitous in skiing and cycling. Now, the consumer could look to smart materials as preventative protection for all kinds of activities.