Carbon Nanotubes Make Lighter Body Armor

By Cheryl Reed

Kathryn Mireles has always been interested in math and engineering—an early indication that she might be a good fit for Washington State University’s graduate program in Materials Science & Engineering. Following her academic work at New Mexico Tech, Kathryn looked to WSU to carry her deeper into the world of polymer composites research in the laboratory of Professor Michael Kessler in 2013.

“Materials Science and Engineering is the marrying of chemistry and engineering. It is a really broad area,” says Kathryn.

Her research in Kessler’s lab is focused on working with carbon nanotubes, tiny cylindrical molecules with novel properties that are useful in many applications.

“Functional carbon nanotubes are over 100 times stronger than steel,” says Kathryn, who is using them to replace certain parts of body armor that will make them lighter, less expensive, and able to withstand higher impacts. Kathryn was able to participate in an internship at the Weapons and Materials Research Division at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, at the Army Research Laboratory located in Aberdeen, Maryland. Mechanical testing of the nanoparticle composite showed less brittle fracture as compared to current body armor materials. It also possessed a “trapping” type behavior.

In March, 2015, Kathryn was the first runner-up at the annual Materials Science and Engineering Research Exposition. Her poster, titled “Ballistic performance of poly-diclylcopentadine (p-DCPD) polymer,” explains her research and the benefits of using carbon nanotubes in body armor.

Current body armor is made up of polymer composites with reinforcing fibers. The reinforcements are meant to increase mechanical properties such as strength and toughness by transferring load from the surrounding matrix to the fiber without increasing the weight. However, mechanisms such as delamination of fibers and micro-cracking exist in current epoxy matrixes. The use of nanomaterials could overcome these issues. Carbon nanotubes boast exceptional mechanical properties with strengths over 150 times stronger than steel with a very low density—thus not impacting the weight of the armor. Nanotubes can also be functionalized to provide covalent bonding with the matrix by polymerization reaction.

Kathryn likes Washington State University’s versatility and that students can target a professor they want to work with. She also appreciates the research collaborations, like the internship she was able to participate in at the Maryland Aberdeen Research Laboratory.

“Graduate school is not isolated—we are always connecting with other students,” said Kathryn, who is also teaching two classes this year.

Her future plans? “I’m kind of torn between teaching and research” she said.

Find out more about the Graduate School’s versatile Materials Science and Engineering program at