While superheroes are fictional and the concept of a ‘super suit’ appears mostly in movies, UNSW Canberra researchers are working on developing real world light-weight protective armour.

DC Comics superhero Black Adam came to life this month when the movie of the same name hit Australian cinemas, and we quickly discover he is gifted with several superhuman powers, including being invincible to gunfire—the holy grail of protective armour.

Hollywood has featured many characters that wear conveniently flexible and unbreachable super suits, such as Batman, Captain America and Spider-Man, but will it ever be possible to make bulletproof armour like the ones these superheroes wear?

What makes a material ‘bulletproof’?

Bulletproof materials and armour must sustain significant impact from high velocity projectiles such as bullets or shrapnel. This means that the protective armour must somehow absorb the energy produced by the high-speed item making impact.

“You have to disperse the energy of the projectile or somehow absorb it,” UNSW Canberra Impact Dynamics Research Group lead Professor Paul Hazell explains.

“The way you disperse the energy of the projectile is by using hard face plates, which need to be suitably thick—so they do not fail in bending—and resilient enough to hold together when hit.

“You could use ceramics, but these would fail too easily after the first shot. This would result in a rather inflexible uncomfortable suit that would have to be replaced every time it was damaged,” Professor Hazell said.  

Traditional bulletproof vests use hard plate inserts, however they are distinctively bulky. While bulletproof vests are effective against impact, they do not mimic the slick, close-fitting suits that we see superheroes wearing in the movies.

Superhero, Black Adam, rises completely unharmed by the impact of bullets.
Superhero, Black Adam, rises completely unharmed by the impact of bullets. Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Soft armour’ can be strong armour

For a real-life 'super suit’ to be as flexible, light and comfortable as the ones movie superheroes wear, a soft bulletproof armour would be required.

While the idea of ‘soft armour’ seems contradictory, it is the inner make-up of the materials that give bulletproof armour the capacity to withstand high impact. A soft armour panel could consist of multiple layers of bullet-resistant fabric, such as Kelvar or Twaron. These materials are manufactured to be tightly woven into a dense net, allowing significant amounts of energy to be absorbed.

To achieve greater energy absorption and maximise bulletproof properties, multiple layers of impact resistant fabrics can be combined. However, for soft armour, this comes at the expense of weight and comfort.

Impact Dynamics Research Group member Dr Dakshitha Weerasinghe explains that “typically, to defeat a handgun-fired round such as 9mm or 0.44 Magnum SJHP, a soft armour panel generally consisting of multiple layers of fabrics is sufficient. However, one would require an impractical number of layers to defeat a high-velocity, high-energy rifle projectile, such as the NATO FMJ round.”

The higher the impact, the more material required to withstand the impact, taking away ‘super suit’ requirements such as lightness and flexibility.

Towards lighter impact-resistant materials

Dr Weerasinghe’s research focuses on reducing the overall weight and thickness of soft armour by using coating to reinforce existing soft armour materials.

Our recent work using polymers to improve impact resistance resulted in developing coatings that are stable up to 60 degrees celsius, are fatigue-resistant, and impact resistance is approximately 18 percent higher,” Dr Weerasinghe said.  

By using a commercially available ‘Flex Seal’, a rubberised aerosol, to coat the soft armour material, the researchers discovered that the coating method has potential in designing and developing lightweight and low-thickness soft armour.

“The method of coating is simple and cost effective which has positive implications in a mass production sense. However, we need more and more methods and materials to improve soft armour impact resistance, and this is the primary topic of our ongoing research efforts.”

Computer generated image of bullet impact on coated soft armour compared to coated soft armour.
'Flex Seal' coated armour (right) has greater resistance to projectiles compared to uncoated soft armour (left). Image: Dr Dakshitha Weerasinghe

Super suits will remain ‘Hollywood magic’ rather than a reality

While the research points towards the possibility of bulletproof materials that are blast or bulletproof, there is still a long way to go before we can recreate the slick super suits seen in the movies.

“The physics of Hollywood often does not resemble the physics of reality,” Professor Hazell said.

“The reality is that all materials—metals, ceramics, composites—are damaged by high-velocity projectile impact which can result in a weakness that could be exploited by a follow-on collision.”

Dr Weerasinghe notes that “if we get our hands on a miracle material such as Vibranium from Wakanda”, we may be able to create a comfortable—yet indestructible—super suit. While bulletproof materials are currently available, the practicality of a finely balanced lightweight and appropriately impact-proof suit is still out of reach. Unfortunately, this means a genuine ‘super suit’ like we see in the movies will remain fictional for now.

So, until that holy grail is discovered we will have to revel in the wonder of invincible superheros like Black Adam, and wishfully channel The Incredibles character Frozone, who asked the question we’re trying to answer: “Where is my super suit?”

Find out more about the projects and researchers who are part of the UNSW Canberra Impact Dynamics Research Group on the website.