You could say Chris Yakacki is making serious headway in the effort to develop a safer football helmet.
The CU Boulder alumnus, now a CU Denver mechanical engineering professor, is developing and testing a new kind of helmet padding made of a class of elastic materials called liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs).
Yakacki (MechEngr, MS’04; PhD’07) and colleagues at Impressio Inc., a firm he helped found, believe an LCE-based foam fitted for existing helmet designs will significantly improve energy absorption, lessening the energy transferred to the athlete during a collision.
“It behaves like a natural tissue,” Yakacki said. “It’s soft, it absorbs a lot of energy and it’s directionally dependent. It’s kind of like a rope — you pull a rope and it’s really strong in one direction, and the other direction it’s soft.”
The helmet is top of mind in discussions about how to minimize football-related brain injuries, which can compound over time with devastating effects.
Yakacki originally thought LCEs, which aren’t yet used in any products, might be a good material for use in knee implants and back repairs — a kind of shock absorber inside the body. When that idea didn’t elicit much investor interest, he and Impressio turned their attention to football helmets. The NFL and the State of Colorado are now both supporting the research.
Yakacki regularly confers with CU Boulder Associate Athletic Trainer Adam Holliday and team physician Dr. Sourav Poddar. Impressio hopes to have a product ready for testing in actual helmets this football season.
If the new technology proves effective, Yakacki can imagine the helmets being used by other athletes, such as skiers, and perhaps by soldiers also.
“Our goal is to put [the LCE foam] in the helmet and they won’t even notice we did anything different,” Yakacki said. “[Players] are going to put it on and, if anything, it will feel a little more comfortable because it’s softer. But the difference will be when you get impacted, it will absorb that energy a lot better.”
Photo courtesy CU Athletics