VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canadian defense scientists are aiming to create armor that is 25 percent lighter than existing materials while offering the same or more protection.

The Canadian program will make use of boron nitride nanotubes or BNNTs, which are 100 times stronger than steel and have 17 times the strength of Kevlar.

While boron nitride nanotubes have been seen as a new potential material for armor, what makes the Canadian effort different is that the scientists have put in place the largest production capacity in the world for BNNTs. That creates the first possibility for the first time of producing the advanced material on a large scale.

"It shows a lot of promise and [it's] the one we're focusing on the most right now," said explained Dr. Guy Vezina, director general, science and technology – Army for Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

DRDC is the science and research organization for the Canadian Forces and the Department of National Defence.

BNNTs are an advanced material similar in structure to carbon nanotubes. Both types of miniature materials are developed in a laboratory and are known for their strength and fire retardant properties.

But BNNTs have an advantage in that they can survive temperatures to around 800 degrees Celsius, about twice as high as carbon nanotubes. BNNTs are more chemically stable, and they are also transparent.

In 2009, US researchers were able to create the first practical macroscopic yarn from BNNTs.

Canada has now taken that further.

In August 2014, the Canadian government's National Research Council in Ottawa announced it had made a breakthrough with the world's first pilot scale production of boron nitride nanotubes. Previously, BNNTs were being produced in very small quantities but the NRC's process involves a production rate 100 times faster than any earlier technologies.

That could pave the way for mass production of the material in a fibrous form.

"The National Research Council's breakthrough on boron nitride nanotube production will give Canadian companies first access to this powerful new material and a significant lead in prototyping, manufacturing and commercializing high-value products from it," Dr. Duncan Stewart, the NRC's general manager of Security and Disruptive Technologies, said in a statement.

NRC says its boron nitride nanotube production capacity is the largest in the world, producing up to 20 grams per hour. It also produces carbon nanotubes at a rate of about two grams a minute. or one kilogram per day.

Although such material will eventually be useful in the automotive, aerospace and construction industries, the focus for Canadian scientists is first using BNNTs to improve armor protection.

That could be for individual soldiers or vehicles. The BNNTs could eventually be added to strengthen existing ceramic armor or to produce stand-alone products for vehicles or troops. The BNNTs could also be used to make transparent face shields for soldiers or windows for armored vehicles to improve situational awareness.

NRC and DRDC will now work together, with Canadian industry, to not only produce the new material for the Canadian military but to position Canadian companies to take advantage of the technology.

"We're interested in industry having the capability eventually to answer DND's [Department of National Defence] demands," Vezina said. "We're interested in challenging industry to take every opportunity to innovate so they can meet or ideally surpass our expectations."

NRC and DRDC will now create a roadmap for further development and testing and cooperation with Canadian universities and industry.

Vezina said the entire process is expected to take up to seven years. But NRC officials are optimistic that some products could be developed within the next several years.

Although Canada is focusing on BNNTs, Vezina said it would not overlook other potential materials for armor or protective equipment, such as graphene.

Graphene, an advanced material, is extremely strong, efficiently conducts heat and electricity, and is made of carbon. Some scientists have developed a process to transform carbon nanotubes into graphene. They have also experimented on combining the two to make a stronger material.

Vezina said Canada's allies are also conducting research into graphene.

In addition, the South Korean government announced April 6 that it plans to produce and sell industrial products using graphene as early as 2017. It is looking at mass production of the material by 2020 and has established a plan that involves 45 private firms and research institutes.

"We expect to secure 85 key technologies related to graphene by 2020 through cooperation between the public and private sectors under the new plan," South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy stated in an April 6 news release.

While such materials potentially provide new ways to significantly improve armor, Vezina cautions that coming up with methods of protecting vehicles and soldiers is a continuing process. Threats constantly evolve, he added.

The sharing of technology among adversaries ensures that improvements in the development of improvised explosive devices and other weapons can quickly find their way into various conflict zones.

"Then it's a matter of imagination on how to use these devices and how to adapt quickly," Vezina explained. "It will always be a challenge to stay ahead. The adversaries will adjust."


David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

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