Colorado Football: CU Professor Aims To Improve Football Helmet Safety With New Polymer

Published: May. 31, 2018 at 6:12 PM MDT
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University of Colorado professor Chris Yakacki wants to make a safer football helmet.You could say he's making some serious headway.

Yakacki is a Buffs fan, a Colorado grad and a current associate professor of mechanical engineering at CU Denver. He and his cohorts at Impressio Inc., a company he helped found, are developing and testing a new kind of helmet padding made from lab-developed liquid-crystal elastomers (LCEs). They believe the new material will significantly improve the energy absorption compared to current helmet pads, and thus make a safer protective headgear.

It's obviously a timely issue. With the growing concern over concussions in football and their potential long-lasting effects, helmet performance is a centerpiece of those concerns.

But fact is, the padding used in today's helmets isn't really that much different from the foams and plastics/polymers that were developed roughly 40 years ago. Yakacki and his team believe they are on the cusp of developing something new — and they have convinced plenty of other folks that they are on the right path.

Already this year, Impressio has received three significant cash infusions:

— In February, the company picked up a $50,000 check at the Super Bowl after winning the "Advancements in Protective Technology" category in the NFL's "First and Future" competition. Yakacki and his team participated in a "Shark Tank"-style process in the competition and won to collect the prize.

— In March, Impressio was a winner in the HeadHealthTECH Challenge III competition, sponsored by the NFL and Football Research Inc., and received a $121,949 grant.

— In April, Impressio was awarded a $165,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to continue its research and production of its LCEs.

"It's been a good year so far," said Yakacki, who is on a year's sabbatical from his teaching duties. "Now we just want to keep this momentum going."

Yakacki, who earned his doctorate from CU in 2007, comes from a family that has long been involved with medicine, including his father, a doctor.

"I've always had a passion for human health," Yakacki said. "My whole family worked in medicine somehow. I said I'd never be a doctor, but somehow I got into devices and it's just kind of snowballed from there."

After graduating with his bachelor's and master's in mechanical engineering, he began working with shape-changing polymers. At the same time, he helped found a sports medicine product line with MedShape, a medical device company in Atlanta.

But when that product line was sold, he decided it was time to return to Colorado.

"I told myself that if I wanted to be a professor, I probably better do it then," he said. "I found a job at CU Denver and everything kind of worked out great."

Yakacki's interest in LCEs led him to develop the material he is currently working with to put in helmets. He describes it as the "anti-flubber" because of its ability to absorb shock. He works out of the the CU Mechanical Engineering Department's Smart Materials and Biomechanics (SMAB) lab.

"My plan has always been to develop technology at the university," he told "CU Denver Today" earlier this year. "You can swing for the fences on new materials and inventions."

His latest new material, which can be made into a foam, could revolutionize helmet technology.

"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."

Yakacki originally thought it might be a good material to use in implants in knee and back repairs as a "shock absorber" inside the body, but didn't get a lot of interest in that area from potential investors.

But when he and his team hit upon the idea of possibly using it in football helmets, it immediately drew some attention in an industry that is sorely in need of some innovation.

"About 40 years ago, they came out with some great high-performance foams for that time — and that's what everyone has been using in helmets since," Yakacki said. "They have tried different ways of putting it inside the helmets, but it's been basically the same. Our goal is to advance the material. The material is better so the performance should be better for all helmets. We want everyone who makes helmets to say, 'Let's use a better shock-absorbing material inside' without having to totally redesign everything from the ground up."

Over the years, there have been a few attempts at completely redesigning helmets, including a "shell" that fit on the outside of a conventional helmet.

Those changes, however, never caught on.

"From an engineering standpoint, I could make a helmet three feet in diameter out of foam and it would work great," Yakacki said. "But you would look like Sputnik or something, and the problem is no one would wear it. You don't want to add things to the helmet. Our goal is to make it look the same, but hopefully feel more comfortable and the performance will be better."

Yakacki regularly confers with CU associate athletic trainer Adam Holliday and team physician Dr. Sourav Poddar. He and the Impressio team hope to have their product ready for some actual testing in helmets by the upcoming season.

But first, they need to complete some tests that will meet the standards of the National Organizational Committee on Sports and Athletic Equipment.

"They used to have a test where they would just drop the helmet on a platform and measure the acceleration," Yakacki said. "But they figured out that's not the best way of predicting concussions."

NOCSAE will soon release some new standards of testing that will utilize a machine that uses a piston to "punch" a helmet with sensors inside to measure the impact. Yakacki and his team are building one of those machines at their testing lab at the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus in Aurora.

"We're building that setup so we can test here at CU Denver," Yakacki said. "We can take any helmet, ours or existing, and punch it with this machine. We're also designing our polymer to be a foam material that we can replace the inserts with. We have our space, we have our production lab where we can make these foam materials and now we're getting into the impact portion."

Being able to meet NOCSAE standards, Yakacki said, would be a huge step in the process.

"In medical devices, once you get your FDA (Food and Drug Administration) clearance, your company is valued more and people are interested," Yakacki said. "I think this NOCSAE testing would be maybe our equivalent to FDA clearance. If we run these tests in a helmet according to NOCSAE standards, that's a huge milestone for us."

Then would come the next step.

"We're hoping to have some preliminary results by the time football rolls back around," he said. "We'd love when the season begins to be able to say, 'Hey, we made these materials, we put them in helmets, tested them and this is how they performed.' We've gotten tremendous help from the state, CU and the NFL in helping fund us to do that."

And, if all works out as planned, Impressio's new LCE will become a standard in high-quality helmets.

"Our goal is to put it 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."