Expert Q&A on designing materials for futuristic body armour


UVic synthetic chemist Jeremy Wulff (right) meets with researchers at UBC Okanagan. Credit: UBCO handout

University of Victoria synthetic chemist Jeremy Wulff’s research group has developed a vital link for a multi-university project that will design high-performance protective wear to keep Canadian soldiers safer and more comfortable during their missions. 

The $1.5-million COMFORTS project—Comfort-Optimized Materials for Operational Resilience, Thermal-transport and Survivability—announced on Wednesday is a three-year collaboration that includes 11 researchers from UVic, the University of British Columbia (Okanagan) and the University of Alberta, as well as industry partners. 

Wulff, a co-investigator in kinetics protection research on the COMFORTS team, holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioactive Small Molecule Synthesis. His research group developed a new class of additives that can be used to strengthen existing materials including the polymers and technical fabrics used to make modern protective clothing. Treated materials will offer increased protection from ballistic impacts, while remaining light, flexible and breathable.  

This project is about developing high-performance body armour. Please elaborate on what this means. 

We dress in layers to protect ourselves from extreme elements. Using this concept of layers, we are developing the next-generation of protective wear. There’s an outer, middle and base layer. My research focuses on that middle layer where we’ve developed a lightweight, ballistic-resistant material. 

What is materials science and how is it relevant to the work you’re doing on this project? 

The field of advanced materials is a broad area of fundamental research. Scientists and engineers enhance the performance of existing materials and develop new materials for applications across many disciplines. In this case, we have experts in organic chemistry, kinesiology, mechanical engineering and textile sciences. This research network is designing and integrating advanced fabrics and materials into garments that can stop a bullet, yet are easy to wear and practical. 

How do the new additives work and how does it make the gear ballistic-resistant? 

Our new additives allow us to form molecular bonds between the polymers that make up a fabric. This process, which is called polymer cross-linking, increases the mechanical strength of the material, making it more impact-resistant. Our patented cross-linking technology will be used in the middle layer. The same cross-linking technology can also be used to adhere the layers, allowing impact experienced on the outer layers to be transferred to the stronger inner layer where the energy of the impact can be dissipated. 

Could the innovation be applied more broadly?  

We’re first looking at increased protection from ballistic impacts, but there is scope to explore protection from extreme elements such as fire, below freezing temperatures, corrosive chemicals. The idea is that everyone from first responders and soldiers to extreme athletes can benefit from this innovation. 

Beyond the science, why is this network of experts important? 

The materials-testing resources at UBC’s STAR Impact Research Facility (SIRF) opens the door to a lot of crucial experiments that we simply can’t do in our own lab at UVic. This is particularly true when it comes to things like fracture testing and ballistics experiments. By putting our innovative cross-linker technology together with the mechanical engineering expertise at STAR, we can really embark on some amazing projects that we’d never be able to do alone. 

Read UBCO’s feature story on COMFORTS.


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Keywords: chemistry, research, nanotechnology, interdisciplinary, industry partnerships

People: Jeremy Wulff

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