The New Force Field That Might Protect Soldiers From Blast Waves

Frontline Soldier
“Fighting men are the city’s fortress.” —Alcaeus

In A Nutshell

Over 300,000 US soldiers have sustained traumatic brain injuries from improvised explosive devices and bomb blasts since the warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq began. A newly patented device from Boeing may stop shock waves by detecting the blast, then heating the air in front of the area where a bomb goes off. The warmer air acts like a force field or shield to speed up the blast wave, directing its energy around the person so that he or she is less likely to be wounded. It works in a similar way to how a lens bends light.

The Whole Bushel

Over 300,000 US soldiers have sustained traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and bomb blasts since the warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq began. TBIs can cause mild symptoms such as nausea and prolonged headaches to more serious damage such as impaired memory and cognition. Although the US Department of Defense has funded critical research in this area, our understanding of how blasts affect the brain is inadequate.

We do know that a blast wave is compressed air that emanates from the center of an explosion. When this shock wave collides with brain tissue, it can do significant damage. Earlier research showed that blast waves may generate electricity when they hit bone. So when a shock wave hits the human skull, the resulting electrical fields may ripple through the human brain with harmful effects.

Using studies to model the effects of a blast on an animal’s brain, MIT scientists have devised a scaling law to forecast the risk of brain damage from a blast to a human brain. The latest research shows that humans are more susceptible than animals to the effects of blast waves because humans have thinner skulls shielding their larger brains. The sinuses and eyes often provide entry points for these blast waves to reach the human brain.

The goal of these studies is to help doctors diagnose TBIs more accurately as well as provide guidance to the military for designing safer helmets. In the case of helmet design, shock waves can sometimes generate unexpected effects. In recent research, extra face protection has been shown to increase pressure on the brain when shock waves bounce off the new features. For example, a jaw protector on a soldier’s helmet may intensify pressure on his forehead from a blast wave.

For now, the researchers are concentrating their efforts on mild TBIs because they pose the largest risk to military personnel. “Eighty percent of the injuries coming off the battlefield are blast-induced, and mild TBIs may not have any evidence of injury, but they end up the rest of their lives impaired,” said Joe Rosen of Dartmouth Medical School. “Maybe we can realize they’re getting doses of these blasts, and that a cumulative dose is what causes [TBI], and before that point, we can pull them off the field. I think this work will be important, because it puts a stake in the ground so we can start making some progress.”

One of the most exciting inventions sounds like a force field out of Star Trek. Although armor on a vehicle can protect a soldier from shrapnel, plating can’t stop an explosion’s shock waves from penetrating a soldier’s body. A newly patented device from Boeing may stop shock waves by detecting the blast, then heating the air in front of the area where a bomb goes off. There are a number of ways this can be done. One method uses an arc generator to create an electrical field similar to a bolt of lightning.

The warmer air acts like a force field or shield to speed up the blast wave, directing its energy around the person so that he or she is less likely to be wounded. It works in a similar way to how a lens bends light. Although a fair amount of power is needed to create this shield, scientists believe they’ve solved this problem because the arc generator or other shield-producing device only needs to be active for a fraction of a second.

Show Me The Proof

Sci Guru: Modeling shockwaves through the brain
LiveScience: Study: Bomb’s Shock Waves May Electrify the Brain
Army Times: Research raises concerns for new Army helmet design
LiveScience: Sci-Fi Cloaking Device Could Protect Soldiers from Shock Waves

  • Hillyard

    This is great news. When this gets developed to the point of being combat practical it will save lives and help prevent long term brain damage. Good job Boeing.

  • Rusty Shackleford

    maybe we’ll start seeing soldiers wearing NFL helmets.