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How a BYU student's 'smart helmet' might save football players from brain damage

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 10:58 a.m. MDT

BYU student Jake Merrell, who is pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering, demonstrates a smart foam he created called xonano (exo-nano) that can detect force. He is testing the foam in the padding of a football helmet with hopes that it can aid football teams in preventing the long-term effects of concussions. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) BYU student Jake Merrell, who is pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering, demonstrates a smart foam he created called xonano (exo-nano) that can detect force. He is testing the foam in the padding of a football helmet with hopes that it can aid football teams in preventing the long-term effects of concussions. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

PROVO — When BYU running back Jamaal Williams was involved in a violent collision during a football game on Sept. 21, his mother hurried to the field and fans and teammates waited silently while team trainers and doctors stabilized his neck and put him on a motorized cart for a trip to the hospital.

Williams suffered a concussion, which meant he couldn't return to the team until he completed concussion recovery protocols designed to protect him from lasting damage to his brain, the type of damage that has led to lawsuits against the NFL and concern about the dangers of the sport.

Concussion protocols continue to improve, but players, doctors, teams and the NFL and NCAA want more information about head injuries, and helmet makers are struggling to provide it. Now one of Williams' fellow BYU students is working on a prototype for a smart helmet that promises to provide professional and college football trainers on the sidelines with instant feedback about the force of an impact on a player's head.

BYU football trainer Jeff Hurst, fifth from left, talks to student assistant Samantha Burton, far right, as she prepares to drive a cart carrying Cougar running back Jamaal Williams to an ambulance after Williams suffered a concussion Sept. 21 during a game against Utah in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) BYU football trainer Jeff Hurst, fifth from left, talks to student assistant Samantha Burton, far right, as she prepares to drive a cart carrying Cougar running back Jamaal Williams to an ambulance after Williams suffered a concussion Sept. 21 during a game against Utah in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Jake Merrell was looking for a way to measure impacts inside of helmets, but even he was surprised when he combined some nanoparticles to foam like that inside a football helmet. He discovered a new phenomenon — the nanoparticles and foam created an electric current when compressed.

He borrowed two helmets from the BYU football program, hired a company to write code for a microcontroller sensor and a student to create tablet software. Then he inserted the foam into a helmet and found that each impact to the helmet produced a measurable electrical current that can be read by the microcontroller sensor, which sends a signal to a handheld tablet on the sideline.

He dubbed his finding "xonano" (pronounced exo-nano) foam, a wordplay on the X's and O's of football playbooks and the protective power of exoskeletons.

Jake Merrell discovered a new phenomenon, a piezoelectric response in a piece of foam treated with nano particles. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) Jake Merrell discovered a new phenomenon, a piezoelectric response in a piece of foam treated with nano particles. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

"When we put the xonano foam into an existing helmet," he said, "we can create a smart helmet that will monitor impacts and send that data to the sidelines in real time."

He's still working on processing the measurements because of another exciting development.

"One of the really interesting things about it is the voltage charge isn't only about how hard you hit it but about how fast," Merrell said. "So we can measure both force and acceleration. We're working on the correlation now."

He's also working on a prototype helmet he will enter in the NFL's $60 million Head Health Challenge, which is designed to spur research and development that will help the world better understand concussions.

Merrell's invention is getting attention from outlets like Mashable, Sports Illustrated and Technorati.

The nano particles are truly tiny, hundredths of the size of a human hair. Nano is a prefix that means "dwarf" in Greek and "is shorthand for nanometer, one-billionth of a meter: a distance so minute that comparing it to anything in the regular world is a bit of a joke," according to an article on nanotechnology by National Geographic. "Nanotechnology matters because familiar materials begin to develop odd properties when they’re nanosize."

The BYU football program loaned Jake Merrell a couple of football helmets so he could build a prototype helmet that could provide team trainers on the sidelines with immediate information about the force of a hit to a player's head. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) The BYU football program loaned Jake Merrell a couple of football helmets so he could build a prototype helmet that could provide team trainers on the sidelines with immediate information about the force of a hit to a player's head. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

For example, when aluminum foil is chopped down to nano-sized strips, the pieces can explode.

"Not all nanosize materials change properties so usefully," the article says, "(there’s talk of adding nano aluminum to rocket fuel), but the fact that some do is a boon. Substances behave magically at the nanoscale because that’s where the essential properties of matter are determined."

That's similar to Merrell's experience.

“Jake is the one who pushed testing the sensors in silicon foam and he is the one who discovered that it is piezoelectric — that it creates voltage when compressed,” BYU mechanical engineering professor David Fullwood said in a BYU press release. “Jake is very proactive, talking to people in the industry and pushing hard to make it work.”

A piece of foam with nano particles conducts an electrical current when the foam is compressed. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU) A piece of foam with nano particles conducts an electrical current when the foam is compressed. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU)

This isn't the first time Merrell, a graduate of Orem's Mountain View High who returned to BYU three years ago at age 27, has made news this year for an engineering feat.

In May, Merrell and three other BYU students built an "unbreakable bridge." Judges at the International SAMPE Bridge Competition couldn't bust their 2 kg I-beam, not even at 20,000 pounds of pressure, a first for the competition.

The logo for xonano foam. (Jake Merrell) The logo for xonano foam. (Jake Merrell)

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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