When Carl Frick, University of Wyoming mechanical engineering department head, started researching ways to manufacture a material made from liquid crystals five years ago, he never thought that his research would end up winning an NFL innovation competition.

But it did just that. Frick and his associates that make up Impressio, a startup company, presented their project to a panel of medical experts and venture capitalists in the “1st and Future,” startup competition in Minneapolis, during Super Bowl week, Jan. 29 – Feb. 4.

Their winning design in the category of “Advancement in Protective Equipment,” involves a new way of manufacturing material built from liquid-crystal elastomers that lend themselves well to being used as helmet padding. The new method of manufacturing LCEs, Frick says, allows for greater energy dissipation, which would help absorb force in a helmet.

“In very simple terms, we are stitching the molecules such that we make a solid material instead of this kind of liquid structure,” Frick said. “This solid material looks like silicone, but the big advantage is, those crystals, if we try and mechanically deform it on the molecular scale you end up moving those crystals around and re-orientating them. What that does is it allows for energy dissipation. That’s really good for padding for a helmet, because it’s just a material that absorbs and dissipates energy better than really anything else that’s out there.”

Frick said after developing the new manufacturing method about two years ago, he and others at Impressio began looking for applications for the new technology. Frick said the material really lent itself to helmets, since their manufacturing method would make LCEs compatible with most helmet designs and could easily replace the current padding that is used.

“The advantage of what we have is it’s something that’s fundamentally a new material,” Frick said. “We can make it into a foam, we can make it into a hard rubber, we can make it into a cone shape or really anything that’s currently used. It’s something we could in theory supply to any helmet manufacturer that they can plug in with their current design. Since the material is just better at dissipating energy, it’s just going to be better at performance in the helmet and avoiding concussions.”

The properties of the material make it useful for other applications as well. Frick says Impressio originally was exploring the material for use in orthopedic devices, specifically intervertebral disc replacement - the process of replacing the layer of cartilage separating vertebrae in the spine. Frick says Impressio believes their material would be beneficial for that application, as many of the current disc replacement devices out there don’t have the energy dissipation qualities of their material. Frick says Impressio will be pursuing that avenue in the future.

Frick said Impressio is excited to work towards getting their material into helmets that are being widely manufactured. Frick says Impressio has the research behind it, with the material being vetted and academic publications having been put forth on LCEs. The biggest challenge to getting LCEs into mass produced helmets is the scale of production.

“We’ve proven its mechanical properties. I think from a material manufacturer perspective, I think what they will be primarily concerned about now is, they’re gonna say, ok, well you’ve proven you can make it on a lab bench at the university, how are you going to make one ton of this a year, how are you going to upscale manufacturing?” Frick said.  “That’s what we’ve kind of up to now.”

Frick said Impressio is exploring 3D printing and other methods of large scale production of the LCEs. Frick said they will use the $50,000 prize money to explore that idea. Frick says they are also applying for federal grants.

UW has played an important part in the process, Frick says, supplying resources and equipment to conduct research. He says he has a lab at UW with all the equipment they need, as well as many students who work in the lab.

“It’s a thing that most major universities do, and it’s something the University of Wyoming does really well.”