What do football superstars Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Adrian Peterson all have in common? Last year they wore helmets that provided the poorest protection against concussions in all the NFL.
"You're only as protected as well as the worst helmet that's out there."
A Dangerous Policy
Football helmets are rated on a one-star to five-star system based on how well they do the job of protecting the player. The league has allowed players to use their favorites, regardless of the star rating.
The Oxford-trained neuroscientist Ray Colello conducted a serious analysis of just how much the protection can vary between each level of star rating. Colello and his team of graduate students sifted through two seasons of game video to identify which players were wearing what helmets. There was "a really good correlation with position, but the correlation is much more significant based on age."
"The average player in the NFL is 26.6 years old, but the average age of a player wearing a one-star helmet is 34. And for anyone who knows football, that's ancient," the brain doc says. "Then for our two-star helmet, it's 32; and for a three-star helmet it's 29." Players were sticking with the helmets they were familiar with in college, despite the fact that equipment had improved considerably in recent years.
"You're only as protected as well as the worst helmet that's out there," Colello explains. Offering an auto analogy, he says, "It's like, if you run into the back of a Pinto, even if you are in a five-star Mercedes, that gas tank may still explode and you are still going to die."
It's one thing for a player to take a risk at scrambling his own brain; it's another matter to put a teammate or opponent at needless risk. Colello published his analysis early last year and the NFL moved quickly to ban the worst performing helmets, starting next season.
Some of the 14 players using the soon-to-be-banned helmets, like Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, made the switch to a five-star helmet at the start of training camp and stayed with it. Adrian Peterson wore a one-star helmet throughout the season.
Tom Brady tried but just couldn't get comfortable with a new bonnet and, after losing a few games, switched back to his old one in the middle of the season; he says he's going to ask the league to "grandfather in" his old helmet so he can continue to use it.
As for Colello, he's only just getting started. The brain doc has a much bigger vision for the future of football safety. He wants to prevent concussions from even occurring in the first place by creating an innovative new helmet that's unlike anything the league has ever seen.
Oxford-trained neuroscientist Ray Colello is on a mission to make football safer.
(Photo credit: VCU public affairs)
"A Force Field" of Protection
His inspiration was serendipitous; he was at home watching a football game on TV when Denver Bronco's receiver Wes Welker was hit, lay flat on the field with a concussion, and was carted off. As a commercial flickered on the screen, he ambled into the kitchen for another beer. "What those guys need is a force field protecting them," he thought to himself.
Like so many households, the refrigerator door was festooned with magnets holding his kids' school work in place. And in that eureka moment the idea popped into his head: "Maybe the repulsive force of magnets can put a break on an impact before it even occurs." Colello has spent the last few years trying to turn his concept into reality.
Newton's laws of physics – mass and speed – play out graphically in a concussion. The sudden stop of a helmet-to-helmet collision can shake the brain back and forth inside the skull like beans in a maraca. Dried beans stand up to the impact, making their distinctive musical sound; living brain tissue is much softer and not nearly so percussive. The resulting damage is a concussion.
The risk of that occurring is greater than you might think. Researchers using accelerometers inside helmets have determined that a typical college football player experiences about 600 helmet-to-helmet contacts during a season of practice and games. Each hit generates a split second peak g-force of 20 to 150 within the helmet and the odds of one causing a concussion increase sharply over 100 gs of force.
By comparison, astronauts typically experience a maximum sustained 3gs during lift off and most humans will black out around 9gs, which is why fighter pilots wear special pressure suits to counter the effects.
"It stretches the time line of impact quite dramatically. In fact in most instances, it doesn't even hit."
The NFL's fastest player, Chris Johnson, can run 19.3 mph. A collision at that speed "produces 120gs worth of force," Colello explains. "But if you can extend that time of impact by just 5 milliseconds (from 12 to 17msec) you'll shift that g-force down to 84. There is a very good chance that he won't suffer a concussion."
The neuroscientist dived into learning all he could about the physics magnets. It turns out that the most powerful commercially available magnet is an alloy made of neodymium, iron, and boron. The elements can be mixed and glued together in any shape and then an electric current is run through to make it magnetic; the direction of the current establishes the north-south poles.
A 1-pound neodymium magnet can repulse 600 times its own weight, even though the magnetic field extends less than an inch. That means it can push back a magnet inside another helmet but not affect the brain.
Crash Testing the Magnets
Colello couldn't wait to see if his idea panned out. With blessing from his wife to use their credit card, he purchased some neodymium magnets and jury-rigged experiments at home.
The reinforced plastics used in football helmets don't affect the magnetic field. And the small magnets stopped weights on gym equipment that were dropped from various heights. "It stretches the time line of impact quite dramatically. In fact in most instances, it doesn't even hit," says Colello. "We are dramatically shifting the curve" of impact.
Virginia Commonwealth University stepped in with a $50,000 innovation grant to support the next research steps. The professor ordered magnets custom-designed to fit the curvature of space inside the front and sides of existing football helmets. That makes it impossible to install them the wrong way, and ensures the magnets' poles will always repel and not attract. It adds about a pound and a half to the weight of the helmet.
a) The brain in a helmet. b) Placing the magnet. c) Measuring the impact of a helmet-to-helmet collision. d) How magnets reduce the force of impact.
(Courtesy Ray Colello)
Colello rented crash test dummy heads crammed with accelerometers and found that the magnets performed equally well at slowing collisions when fixed to a pendulum in a test that approximated a helmet and head hitting a similarly equipped helmet. It impressively reduced the force of contact.
The NFL was looking for outside-the-box thinking to prevent concussions. It was intrigued by Colello's approach and two years ago invited him to submit materials for review. To be fair to all entrants, the league proposed to subject all entries to the same standard crush test to see how well each performed in lessening impact. The only trouble was, Colello's approach was designed to avoid collisions, not lessen their impact. The test wouldn't have been a valid evaluation and he withdrew from consideration.
But Colello's work caught the attention of Stefan Duma, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who developed the five-star rating system for football helmets.
"In theory it makes sense to use [the magnets] to slow down or reduce acceleration, that's logical," says Duma. He believes current helmet technology is nearing "the end of the physics barrier; you can only absorb so much energy in so much space," so the field is ripe for new approaches to improve helmet technology.
However, one of Duma's concerns is whether magnets "are feasible from a weight standpoint." Most helmets today weigh between two and four pounds, and a sufficiently powerful magnet might add too much weight. One possibility is using an electromagnet, which potentially could be lighter and more powerful, particularly if the power supply could be carried lower in the body, say in the shoulder pads.
Colello says his lab tests are promising enough that the concept needs to be tried out on the playing field. "We need to make enough helmets for two teams to play each other in a regulation-style game and measure the impact forces that are generated on each, and see if there is a significant reduction." He is waiting to hear from the National Institutes of Health on a grant proposal to take that next step toward dramatically reducing the risk of concussions in the NFL.
Just five milliseconds could do it.
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."