A Hanes Beefy that can deflect bullets may sound like the stuff of comic books, but scientists have developed a way of bulking up an ordinary T-shirt to create wearable armor. By splicing the carbon in the cotton with boron, the third hardest material on the planet, researchers at the University of South Carolina markedly increased the fabric’s toughness. The result is a lightweight shirt reinforced with boron carbide—the same material used to shield military tanks.

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This breakthrough, according to Dr. Xiaodong Li, a professor of mechanical engineering at USC and co-author of a paper on the subject in Advanced Materials, signals a “conceptual change in fabricating lightweight, fuel-efficient, super-strong and ultra-tough materials.”

The nanowires are super-elastic but with the same strength and stiffness of current boron carbide.

Unlike the brittle boron carbide currently in use, the synthesized fibers (“nanowires”) are super-elastic. Yet they maintain the same strength and stiffness of their predecessors. “They are not only lightweight but also flexible,” Li says. “We should be able to fabricate much tougher body armors using this new technique. It could even be used to produce lightweight, fuel-efficient cars and aircrafts.”

Look, up in the sky!

+ University of South Carolina