In a lab at the University of Delaware, Norman Wagner, along with scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, are using ceramic nanoparticles to make a new type of body protector.

They treat soft body armor with shear-thickening fluid and end up with something that can stop a bullet, a knife or flying shrapnel.

Liquid Armor, the UD trademarked innovation, responds when it is hit or shaken and it's light and flexible, said Wagner, the Alvin B. and Julia O. Stiles Professor of Chemical Engineering and chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering at UD. Wagner invented the shear thickening fluid technology in collaboration with Eric Wetzel, a scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

"For first responders, you get not only ballistic protection with Liquid Armor, but you also gain this additional stab and puncture protection," Wagner said. "And the material can do all of this while increasing the vest's wearability."

He and his team are also working on a specialty application – a highly flexible and protective glove that could be worn by surgeons and other medical professionals to guard against cuts and needle sticks.

"Puncture is a real issue" in health care, he said.

And they are working with ILC Dover, the space suit manufacturer on other possible applications, Wagner said. Liquid Armor is applied to a flexible fiber. It uses tiny bits of silica and polymers that are suspended in sheer thickening fluid. The sheer thickening fluid hardens instantly when it is hit or shaken. Once the stress stops, the body armor returns to its flexible state.

Wagner is working with the University's Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP), and with Barrday, a specialty textile manufacturer, to create new Liquid Armor products.

The specialized material gets stronger under pressure, Wagner said.

The goal of the technology is to create a new material that is low cost and lightweight while still offering equivalent or superior ballistic properties compared to current Kevlar fabric. But liquid armor also has more flexibility and less thickness, according to Wetzel. The technology has a lot of potential.

Liquid armor is still undergoing laboratory tests, but Wetzel is enthusiastic about other applications that the technology might be applied to. "The sky is the limit," said Wetzel. "We would first like to put this material in a soldier's sleeves and pants, areas that aren't protected by ballistic vests but need to remain flexible. We could also use this material for bomb blankets, to cover suspicious packages or unexploded ordnance. Liquid armor could even be applied to jump boots so that they would stiffen during impact to support soldiers' ankles."

In addition to saving soldiers' lives, Wetzel said liquid armor used in Kevlar vests could help those who work in law enforcement. "Prison guards and police officers could also benefit from this technology," said Wetzel. "Liquid armor is much more stab-resistant than conventional body armor. This capability is especially important for prison guards, who are most often attacked with handmade sharp weapons."