Researcher exploring the role nanocomposites can play in creating the next generation of body armor

Neil Forsythe

As a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship program at the Naval Research Laboratory, Neil Forsythe explored the use of nanomaterials to create the next generation of body armor. (Photo courtesy of Naval Research Laboratory)

The next generation of body armor may provide soldiers with increased ballistics protection but in the form of a lighter-weight material. That’s the goal Neil Forsythe pursued as a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program at the Naval Research Laboratory. This program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

Forsythe, a senior in chemistry at Pomona College, explored the use of nanomaterials as the key element in the next generation of body armor. Nanocarbons and other nanomaterials have the potential to improve the mechanical performance of current polymers.

“Specifically, we worked on the design and analysis of polymer nanocomposites that had energy absorbing and ballistic resistant characteristics,” said Forsythe. “Ideally we will find composites that are both light-weight and display enhanced protective characteristics compared with current technologies,” said Forsythe.

To help in the development of this new body armor, Forsythe planned and conducted experiments using state- of-the-art instrumentation and equipment. “Most of the experiments that I did were analytical. They involved using instrumentation, such as inverse gas chromatography or x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, in order to characterize the surface chemistry of the materials we’re making in lab, so that we could better tune their strength characteristics,” explained Forsythe.

“Perhaps one of the most valuable skills I learned from this experience was how to constructively deal with experiments that were not going ideally. In science, something always goes wrong and having the ability to cope and adjust will be a valuable skill in my future career path,” said Forsythe.

He also had access to a wide array of journal articles that helped expand his knowledge of nanomaterials, a field in which he had minimal knowledge and no prior experience.

Forsythe encourages others to apply for this opportunity. “Few programs encompass such a variety of relevant projects that give you real-world experience in STEM fields.” His advice for potential applicants is to have a clear idea of what type of project would be ideal and to be persistent.

“After this opportunity I fully realized my desire to further my studies in graduate school and to maybe someday pursue government based research in a national lab.”

Following graduation, Forsythe plans to pursue a doctorate in chemistry with the ultimate goal of conducting research and creating useful technology for the military or public. After his recent internship, he is open to the possibility of working in a government laboratory.

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.