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Sandia supercomputer aims to improve helmet design

Helmet model

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico are using one of the fastest supercomputers in the world to help improve military helmet designs to guard soldiers against traumatic brain injuries.

Researchers form Sandia and the University of New Mexico are comparing supercomputer simulations of blast waves on the brain with clinical studies of veterans suffering from mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) using Sandia’s Red Sky supercomputer.

According to the lab, Paul Taylor and John Ludwigsen of Sandia’s Terminal Ballistics Technology Department and Corey Ford, a neurologist at UNM’s Health Sciences Center, are in the final year of a four-year study of mild TBI funded by the Office of Naval Research.

The team hopes to identify threshold levels of stress and energy on which better military and sports helmet designs could be based. They could be used to program sensors placed on helmets to show whether a blast is strong enough to cause TBI.

Supercomputer simulations used in the study contain a computer model of a human's head viewed from above looking down and from the side. Images can show the deposition of compressive energy in the brain during frontal, rear and side blasts. The models, said Sandia, combined with University of New Mexico's clinical observations are used to identify energy thresholds that should lead not only to better military helmet designs, but also to better designs for civilian sports helmets.

In a typical blast simulation, 96 processors on Red Sky take about a day to process a millisecond of simulated time and at least 5 milliseconds are required to capture a single blast event, Taylor said.

 The 3-D simulations are visualized using two-dimensional multi-colored images of a man’s head that record an enormous amount of data, said Sandia. Taylor and Ford have focused on three types of energy entering the brain that may cause TBI: compressive isotropic energy associated with crushing; tensile isotropic energy that tends to expand parts of the brain and could lead to cavitation; and shear energy that causes distortion and tearing of soft tissue. The pressure and stress within the brain show up as colors moving in slow motion through and around the brain cavity on videos created from the simulations.

“Our ultimate goal is to help our military and eventually our civilian population by providing guidance to helmet designers so they can do a better job of protecting against some of these events we are seeing clinically and from a physics perspective,” said Taylor, Sandia’s principal investigator on the project. “To do that we’ve got to know what are the threshold conditions that correlate with various levels of TBI.”

 
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