Sorry, my fellow football fans. There will never be a concussion-proof helmet. But beyond changing the rules of the game, we can do a lot more to monitor player safety.
One promising development comes out of the University of Pennsylvania, where researchers have developed a material that changes color under high impact, teasing a concussion-sensing helmet that could mark a dangerous point of impact.
Technically, they’ve created an pressure-sensitive, color-changing polymer, developed through the process of holographic lithography (think 3-D laser etching). The polymer is filled with photonic crystals that, when hit, lose their original structure and convey a color–and that color will actually change depending on the severity of impact. So a car hitting a wall at 80 mph may turn the polymer green, whereas a car hitting a wall at 90 mph may turn the polymer purple.
The technology has implications for any industry where seeing an impact could be beneficial, but the lead researcher, Shu Yang, tells Phys.org that its effective ranges falls in the sweet spot zone of blast radiuses and concussions. This gives the technology a particular value in helmet design, and in fact, Yang is developing the material further so that it can measure speed of impact as well as force, so that it could be a better diagnostic tool for concussions.
Unfortunately, the technology isn’t cost effective for mass manufacture–which leaves us awaiting the 2015-16 NFL season facing the same old half-assed attempts at dealing with player safety. Since 2011, the NFL has installed a dedicated health monitor sitting in the press box, watching for potential injuries, but they’re yet to adopt more responsible and transparent technology like Reebok’s Checklight system. When a player has a suspected concussion, they’re ushered into the dark cave of the locker room, far from cameras and broadcasters, to be diagnosed.
So no, a helmet that would automatically turn red if a player had suffered a brain injury probably isn’t what the NFL wants airing on national television. But it’s the sort of thing that the fans should be asking for in interest of transparency and player safety. And I’m sure a small portion of the NFL’s $27 billion television contract could help speed along Yang’s research.