Lockheed Martin claims breakthrough in development of ceramic armour systems

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  12/11/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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Lockheed Martin and researchers at the University of Surrey have developed a process to improve the mechanical properties of ceramic armour systems that is said to increase its survivability by improving multi-hit capability.

Using ceramic as the strike face for high-end armour systems is not a new concept. However, the problem has always been one of adhesion and creating a composite system that is robust enough to withstand multiple burst-fire hits. The surface of ceramic materials is incredibly smooth; for a pretty ceramic ornament or medical component (where the material is used to make hip joints for example) this is a wonderful property. But it also means that nothing sticks to it. If there is no friction on the surface then adhesives have nothing to grab hold of and stick to. Ensuring a strong bond between ceramic armour and any other surface has always been like trying to stick two strips of Velcro loops together (or two strips of Velcro hooks, the analogy works either way).

But Lockheed Martin claims to have made progress in this field by developing a method to treat the ceramic surface. The company doesn’t go into a great deal more detail than that but to some degree it chemically alters, or at least manipulates, the properties of the ceramic surface.

“The energy imparted during treatment is sufficient to cause a chemical modification to the surface, which demonstrably improves the bond-line strength,” a Lockheed Martin spokesman told me.

“Our relationship with Lockheed Martin has enabled us to develop a method of treating the ceramic to considerably improve the effectiveness of ceramic armour plating,” said Andrew Harris, Engineering Doctorate research engineer at the University of Surrey. “Key to achieving a step change in performance, proven in tests, has been the pre-conditioning of the ceramic surfaces, prior to bonding onto the support structure.”

Lockheed Martin said that quantitative assessment is currently underway as to the exact effects this new treatment has on multi-hit capability although early indications are positive: “We have seen improvement from an untreated panel failing under one shot, compared to a treated panel retaining protective capability up to 4 shots across the same panel area,” the spokesman told Defence IQ.

If this really represents a step-change in the treatment of ceramics to improve their bonding characteristics then it will have a massive impact on the improved survivability of vehicle armour systems. This is not just from a multi-hit perspective, which has always been difficult with ceramics because once it has been hit in one location then the surrounding area is often rendered useless, but also from a cost and weight standpoint. If the bonding process of ceramics can be improved then the systems will not need to be designed to overmatch the threat as they often are today. That means less material. Less material means less weight and less cost.

But is the cost-saving seen with the reduction in material going to be offset by the increased production cost? Not according to Lockheed Martin. "We do not expect significant cost to be added by the process," said the spokesman. In addition, discussing the eventual commercialisation of the process, the spokesman said, "rest assured, we are striving to produce a solution that will benefit the end user and improve operational performance."

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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