Modern helmet construction hasn't changed significantly since the adoption of polystyrene impact absorption in the 1960s. But new materials and construction methods are improving safety, in some cases absorbing 30 per cent more energy than their polystyrene equivalents. And you can buy helmets made from them today.
Wait, polystyrene? Yes, your bicycle helmet, motorcycle helmet or helmet you use for most other sports absorbs impact energy using Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) — the same material used to deliver your last takeaway dinner. It's actually pretty good at absorbing impacts given its extremely basic nature and is easily spec'd in varying densities to accommodate different deceleration rates for different weight heads. But, its main benefit is that it's cheap, which is also why there's little to no measurable difference in safety provided by more expensive helmets versus crappy ones. It's 2015, surely we can do better.
Enter Koroyd. It's a new material created by thermally welding miniature tubes together to form a whole that crushes on impact, absorbing energy in a measurable, effective way. It may look like a honeycomb, but unlike other those more rudimentary materials, it is made without glues or adhesives which can be weak or difficult to manufacture. Instead, each of the little tubes is created with a co-polymer extrusion process.
The inner layer is much thicker, providing the energy absorption and strength, while the outer layer is an incredibly thin membrane just a few microns thick. Its melting point is lower than the inner's so, to build a sheet of the material, the tubes are stacked together and heat is applied. They then bond together across their entire lengths, creating a unified, consistent construction. This "sheet" of Koroyd tubes can then be bent in three dimensions, allowing it to wrap a person's head with consistent thickness. And, its ability to absorb varying levels of energy can be tailored by the thickness of the tube walls.
In a high-speed impact the Koroyd tubes buckle and crush, much like traditional polystyrene. But, unlike EPS, Koroyd is also able to provide meaningful dampening of low-energy impacts (think falling over at 0mph) by elastically deforming too. Those kinds of topples have been a bugbear for traditional helmets, even while wearing one you can experience a concussion in a very low speed fall; the polystyrene that's capable of saving your life in a high-speed crash simply doesn't deform without enough energy.
We spoke to Graham Sours, the helmet category manager for Smith Sport Optics. Helpfully, my phone failed to record the interview, but he told us that, equipped with Koroyd, the brand's helmets are able to absorb 30 per cent more energy than similar helmets made from polystyrene. Thirty per cent more safety isn't just a small step forward, it's huge and can be considered an unprecedented leap forward from a space that has to-date innovated in only small increments.
Smith is the first helmet brand to adopt the material and Sours explains that it brings benefits beyond just safety. First, Koroyd is lighter than polystyrene. While the brand doesn't claim its so-equipped helmets are the lightest available, that's likely due to their complex construction which sees both polystyrene and Koroyd used in their construction. "Consumer expectations," dictated this hybrid approach Sours told us, going on to explain that there technically is no need to still include EPS in container material in high-tech helmets. But, why we may still prefer some familiarity, cyclists universally love Koroyd's next benefit: ventilation.
Hollow tubes all over mean ventilation all over. Areas on a helmet that were once solid polystyrene are now all vents. This provides an exit for heat escaping your head even if you're sitting still, but get going and the air passing over the helmet turns each tube into an exhaust, pulling the heat off your head. Of course, the traditional vents that allow cool air to flow in the front of the helmet, then pull it through using exhaust vents and channels are still incorporated, even if they need to be to a lesser degree.
And that leads to one final benefit. "Bald guys love this," said Sours. Open areas on a helmet which once allowed the sun's rays to pass clean through to your head are now just cut-outs in the shell over Koroyd's tubes. So the sun's rays are blocked by the contour of the helmet's curves meaning your bare scalp won't get burned on long rides.
But it's not just Koroyd that's making Smith's new range of helmets safer. Put your hand on your head and apply pressure, now rotate your head around a little bit. Feel how your scalp can slide over your skull? That's a little built-in brain protection courtesy of Mother Nature. Experience a large impact and your soft scalp may be gripped by a rock or saber tooth tiger claw, but it will tear and slide on its juicy inside, freeing your hard skull on the inside from the rotational force. Your brain also has its own slideable coating for the same reason and effect: its cerebrospinal fluid.
This rotational component of an impact is a primary cause of concussions and can, in very severe impacts, actually separate your brain from its stem. So, a Swedish company called MIPS came up with a way to mimic this natural function in a helmet and has also created a new testing procedure to account it.
To lift the veil on helmet design and testing, it's a world fraught by liability and regulations and crazy church ladies screaming, "Won't somebody think of the children?!" It's such a nightmare that we're lucky companies bother to make helmets at all and the takeaway here should be that if there's not an approved testing methodology for it and a helmet standard specifying how to meet it, then helmets can't and won't account for it in their design.
So, the Multi-directional Impact System means we can now have a slippery layer between a helmet's impact absorption layer and its comfort liner, separating your head from rotational forces created by an impact. This can either allow your head to keep rotating as it wants to or protect it from rotation caused by an impact. The end result is fewer concussions and less of that whole brain stem separation thing.
MIPS will arrive on Smith's range of Koroyd-equipped helmets this spring, but its not the only brand using the system. It's even started to pop up on some motorcycle helmets in foreign markets, despite the asinine nature of and slow pace of development in that world.
Sours was unable to provide comment on quantifying the safety benefit of MIPS in Smith's helmets. "Our lawyers won't let me," he told us. That's the helmet world for you. As someone who ride bicycles and motorcycles and does other dangerous things, routinely crashing and injuring myself in the process, I see any safety advancement as worthwhile and actively try to make sure I benefit from them. I'll be riding in a Koroyd-equipped Smith helmet from here on out and hopefully a MIPS-equipped one soon, too.
That also makes me curious about and hopeful for adoption of the material in other areas. It looks like UFO is already incorporating Koroyd into limb protectors for mountain biking. There, it meets ECE level 1 standards (the lesser of the two), so its main benefit appears to be breathability and weight. POC also seems to be incorporating back protectors made from it into their cycling jerseys, compliant with standards but not "more safe" than anything else on the market.
Again the benefits appear to be weight and ventilation. The field of body protection for both motorcycles and bicycles is already very well handled by very safe products, though, so it appears Koroyd's main opportunity to actually increase safety lies in helmets. We hope to see it used not only in more bicycle helmets, but helmets for other sports too. Less dying as a result of crashing and fewer bald dudes with sunburned heads are causes we can get behind.
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there