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Every January, in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl (February 3 this year), the NFL releases its most recent injury data. Last year, 291 concussions plagued the league—the highest number in the past six seasons. That troubling data spurred a team of seven engineers and test engineers at Denver-based protective-technology firm Impressio to consider whether a distinctive material they’d been studying might be the solution.
That magical substance: liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) that form a rubberlike hybrid material that absorbs energy and dissipates it, under a broad range of conditions, more effectively than foams or rubbers. Replace the conventional foam lining inside helmets with LCE-based padding, and a tackled player will experience less force on the head, reducing the risk of concussion. “People care about this problem, and they’re desperately looking for new solutions,” says Christopher Yakacki, president and CEO of Impressio and associate mechanical engineering professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “What we can do is make helmet materials that are less sensitive to temperature and more comfortable for players and absorb energy a lot better.”
Impressio was founded in 2017, but LCEs have been studied for decades; what’s novel is the proprietary method the Impressio team developed to produce the substance faster and in larger quantities, making commercial uses more feasible. They’ve won three grants—two from the NFL and one from Colorado’s Advanced Industries Accelerator Program—and began testing the product this past summer using custom-made equipment to simulate real-world scenarios. Ultimately, says test equipment engineer Richard Wojtik, Impressio hopes to apply its technology to more sports, other helmet wearers (such as motorcyclists), and even different products, like shoes. “We’re trying to use our technology to make the world a safer place,” Wojtik says, “whether it’s for an athlete or an industry.”