UK Project Tackles Bike Helmet Safety

By Tiffany Trader

November 13, 2014

There are certain HPC projects that stand out for their ability to help humankind in practical ways. One recent example of such a project combines state-of-the-art 3D printing and supercomputing technology to develop next generation bicycle helmets that can reduce the risk of serious brain injury. Cardiff University colleagues Dr. Peter Theobald and Dr. Philip Martin are investigating how 3D printed materials can be used to manufacture ultra-lightweight bicycle helmets that can better withstand impacts, offering greater safety to bicyclists.

There is reason for concern when it comes to bicycle safety. In both Great Britain and the United States, there has been a spike in bicycle-related accidents in recent years. In Great Britain, over 26,000 cyclists were killed or seriously injured from 2005 and 2013. In the US, between 2010 and 2012, bicyclist deaths increased by 16 percent. In 2012, 726 cyclists were killed and an additional 49,000 were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the US.

Many of these deaths could have been prevented had the cyclist been wearing a helmet. Properly-worn, a helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injury resulting from a bicycle crash. But according to the UK researchers, today’s helmets don’t go far enough.

“It is scary how similar traditional bicycle safety helmets on the market actually are,” said Dr. Philip Martin, Research Associate at Cardiff University. “If you went into a helmet shop with an unlimited sum of money, you would come out with essentially the same thing, in regards to safety, as there is no superior product. The only real differences are in shape, colour and design – merely aesthetics. Everything is made out of polystyrene, which fails to offer adequate protection during ‘oblique’ impacts.”

With backing from the High Performance Computing (HPC) Wales’ Research and Innovation fund, researchers are using supercomputing to optimize the mechanical structures of 3D printed bicycle helmet designs. Different designs and materials are evaluated based on how they perform at impact.

While current guidelines only consider the primary impact, the researchers are going one step farther by evaluating rotational impacts as well. This is where the brain rotates inside the skull due to the impact of the collision, causing additional damage. This is one of the worst brain injuries, causing tearing of nerve fibers and tiny veins within the brain. The solution lies in preventing the deformation of the helmet, which will slow or stop the transfer of energy to the head. At impact, it is better for the brain and the skull to be able to slow down in unison, minimizing the trauma of the secondary “ricochet” impact and of the rotational impact.

Dr. Martin goes on to praise HPC Wales for its support in providing the advanced supercomputing resources without which the project would be impractical from a time and expense standpoint.

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