By Andrew Gelinas
Walter Bonin loves his engines. An inventor by trade, he has created a number of mechanical engineering products. One of these is a “circular internal combustion engine” that is “a lightweight engine that meets the need for high efficiency, low fuel consumption, reduced emissions, and broad application due to its flexibility, low cost and it’s lightweight.”
Bonin solves problems using both his hands and his intuition. Looking at his tools, he designs and builds devices that are sustainable for long periods of time.
While he was entering into the “Design the Future” contest put together by Tech Briefs, he decided to show off a new football helmet he had developed after researching head protection that was currently on the market. It was then that he made an unfortunate realization.
“The realization that came to me why helmets were used in the first place was not because of concussions, because there was no understanding of that as a problem, but (to avoid) skull fractures, which they’re very effective at doing.”
Now while that sounds pretty good, and is backed up by the fact that there are no high profile skull fractures in NFL history, it’s a fact that they aren’t, and have never been, primarily constructed for the sole purpose of protecting the brain.
Now think of a head as if it were an egg and the yolk inside is the brain. Now we’re going to do two different things with this
egg, but they’re both going to include the same first step. Think about the egg as if it has a little helmet on. Now the egg itself, the head, is protected anywhere that is covered by the helmet. The head won’t crack and it won’t break.
Now with the same image of the egg/head, but this time, shake it. Just whip it around once or twice into the palm of a hand. While there won’t be cracks or breaks, open the egg up and the yolk is completely ravaged beyond repair.
The yolk doesn’t immediately liquify, just like brain matter, but it will get damaged because it is bouncing around inside the shell encasing the egg.
So with that understanding, Bonin went to work on a helmet design that had never been created strictly for football players. His focus was on decelerating the force of the impact by adding a separation between an inner shell and an outer shell using Elastomers, which are designed to “decelerate impacts or promote the deflection,” between the two layers.
Bonin said that “If you can stretch that quarter of an inch separation to an inch, a 100 G acceleration can be reduced to 25 Gs.”
To put that into perspective, neuropsychologist Kim Gorgens said during a TEDx talk from 2010 that “the average concussive impact is 95 Gs.”
One might visualize a Bonin helmet as a bobblehead with the addition of a one to three-inch outer layer could balloon the size of the structure. However, it’s this outside-the-box thinking that could at least improve brain health in the NFL and lower leagues.
Bonin said, “In fact in the helmet testing, they don’t even test for any energy absorption.” Bonin added, “It’s really to test the strength of the shell, the strength of the facemask so that they remain attached to the rest of the helmet. But it really doesn’t examine the reduction in the G acceleration that the wearer would experience.”
And that’s a really important detail to understand when trying to shop for protective helmets on any level from youth to the professional leagues.
One sport that does utilize helmets that work similarly to those Bonin designs are those found in auto racing.
Bonin described these as, “far, far bigger than they were five or six years ago and they wear them because they are lifesavers and they basically are because the helmets are attached to the vehicle to keep the player’s head steady during the impact and the attached devices absorb much of the energy.”
Bonin is a wealth of knowledge and information when it comes to his helmet. He has taken the road less traveled in order to construct a device that, on paper, can drastically improve the way of life on the football field. However, in an attempt to truly get to the bottom of whether or not this design is feasible, it was deemed appropriate to get a second opinion.
Enter Dr. Alex Lin, a clinical spectroscopist working within the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Lin said Bonin needed to address one aspect in particular in more detail within his helmet design.
“I think that it needs to address rotational impacts in more detail,” Lin said, “While the design minimizes the linear impacts that can result in the contrecoup injuries in the brain, it doesn’t fully account for rotational injuries that occur (ie shearing in the brain).”
A contrecoup injury is defined as any wound received at the opposite side of the impacted area. For example, picture yourself colliding into a fixed object, like a wall, face first. Your head pitches forward at the wall. The countercoup injury in this situation is the back of your brain hitting the back of your skull.
A shear in the brain is any tear. These can cause far more serious issues like brain swelling, bruising, or even internal bleeding.
Lin also said that “He (Bonin) does mention in there that it minimizes rotational injury but doesn’t (go) into much detail about that aspect. It does have 6 degrees of freedom of movement but it’s unclear how much give there is for rotational impacts. Is it better than current helmets on the market? For sure. But there is a lot of competition out there with new technology.”
Now, Bonin said that his helmet design helps to decrease the impact of a direct, or linear, impact. According to Bonin, the outer and inner shells should be able to decrease a 100 G-force impact to as low as 25. The issue that Dr. Lin brought up is what if the impact is coming at an angle.
Bonin responded to Dr. Lin’s concern. He said that while modern helmets are made to fit firmly around the wearer’s head, his design would allow for “a floating outer shell that will rotate” and thus, “the elastomers will absorb energy as the outer shell rotates.”
The NFL and other football organizations have a major problem, none of their helmets have effectively decreased concussions. In fact, according to the NFL itself, 2017 saw a 13.5 percent increase in reported concussions from 2016. But with people like Walter Bonin around, it appears that while concussions will never be fully eradicated from the league, they could be decreased in a way that could help move the sport forward.