Dr. Mark Horstemeyer and Alston Rush compare notes on the design of their prototype football helmet, which is expected to be three times more effective than the helmets currently available in reducing concussions. Photo by: Mark Wilson/Dispatch Staff
September 29, 2015 10:35:31 AM
Dr. Mark Horstemeyer has a small upstairs office at Mississippi State University's CAVS facility. In it, two things catch a visitor's attention.
The first is various Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia that pay homage to the mechanical engineering professor's hometown. The second is the skull of a bighorn sheep.
One way to describe Horstemeyer's research over the past decade is to say it seeks to draw a line between the two.
With the aid of three Ph.D. students, Horstemeyer hopes to draw on examples from the natural world -- especially bighorn sheep and woodpeckers -- while relying on almost 30 years as a researcher to develop a football helmet that dramatically reduces the risk of concussions.
"As Christians, we believe that God was the original engineer, that he equipped bighorn sheep and woodpeckers for their distinct behaviors," Horstemeyer says. "We are trying to take that engineering and apply it to humans -- in particular, football players. Is there a design in nature that we can learn from in developing a helmet? That was our starting point."
Of sheep and woodpeckers
The trauma of the impact a bighorn sheep absorbs is mitigated by basic design, Hostemeyer says. The force is mitigated in a non-linear fashion -- with the impact being diffused as it travels along the looping design of the sheep's horns and away from its brain.
The woodpecker, meanwhile, holds part of the answer to another aspect critical to designing a safer helmet.
The woodpecker's repetitive striking doesn't injure the bird, thanks to the design of its cranial bone structure. The bird's brain is surrounded by thick, plate-like spongy bone. At a microscopic level, woodpeckers have a large number of trabeculae, tiny beam-like projections of bone that form the mineral "mesh" that makes up this spongy bone plate. The force is dispersed through the mesh so that little force, if any, reaches the brain.
From the lab to the playing field
Horstemeyer, who came to MSU's Center for Advanced Vehicular Studies in 2002 from the Sandia National Laboratories in California, founded in 2007 a start-up company with the help of the university -- Predictive Design Technologies, Inc. -- to develop the research he and his students had begun.
Soon, through a partnership with Rush Predictive Systems Inc. of Meridian, Horstemeyer and his team -- Ph.D. students Kyle Johnson, Karen Persons and Alston Rush -- will receive the first prototypes of its phase one helmets.
The 15 helmets will be tested by MSU players, either later this fall or in the spring. They will take the feedback from those tests and apply it to the company's phase two helmet.
Each of the Ph.D. students focus on a specific element of the helmet.
Johnson researches the shell -- or outer surface of the helmet -- studying various materials and addressing such issues as strength, flexibility, weight, durability and contour, each of which can enhance the helmet's safety.
Persons, meanwhile, is focusing her research on the face mask and how its design can complement safety characteristics of the helmet.
Rush, meanwhile, is in charge of researching the helmet lining. The bio-medical engineering Ph.D. candidate is the son of Sonny Rush, the pioneering sports medicine doctor, whose company is now a partner in the work Horstemeyer's team is doing.
Alston Rush's work mimics in the laboratory the cushioning layer of mushy bone found in the skull of the woodpecker.
"I've probably tested about 30 kinds of foam cylinders and as many configurations," Rush said. "The lining is a critical element. Finding the best design is a big step forward."
A superior product
In addition to its own research, the team has performed hundreds of tests, comparing their model to those from leading helmet manufacturers that are already in use.
Those tests show the phase one helmet is three times more effective in diffusing the G-forces found at a 10.9 mph collision, the standard by which helmets are tested.
Horstemeyer is not surprised by the result.
"Over the past several years, there has been a lot of attention being focused on concussions and how they relate to helmets," Horstemeyer said. "There has even been talk about going back to leather helmets, but, no, that's not the answer. The truth is that the development of the helmet over the years has made the game safer. People aren't dying from collisions like they did back in the leather helmet era.
"But when it comes to concussions, the story is far different. There hasn't been a reduction in concussions since the 1930s.
"That's what our research is all about," he says. "I think we're closer now than we've ever been before."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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