The age of the superhero suit is upon us
By Iain S Bruce, Technology Editor
Inventor who fought off ignorance, financial ruin and ridicule now anticipates £2bn global takings
ITS ROCK-HARD surface can take a full- on assault from a baseball bat, yet remains flexible enough to allow you to kick, leap and roll with perfect ease. Crafted from cutting-edge science, its unique molecular structure means that while providing armoured protection against crude concrete and even barbed wire, it remains light enough to allow you to run at high speed.
It sounds like the stuff of Batman comics - but the superhero suit is here.
Identified as a major breakthrough that could impact on every sector from the military to motor sports, the revolutionary shock-absorbent material d3o is taking the world by storm. Blessed with the kind of properties your average costumed crime fighter would kill for, it is being hailed as an invention with the potential to change entire industries and save real lives.
"It has been a battle against the odds to get this far. I've had to struggle against ignorance of the major players, work out of a back bedroom and beg, borrow and steal to keep development going, but I never doubted that it could be done," said inventor Richard Palmer.
"What we've developed is already being incorporated into everything from police body armour to protective sportswear, and the number of applications is almost infinite.
"At the moment a complete superhero suit made of our material would be a bit too heavy and far too expensive, but those challenges should be overcome within the next few years."
Speaking at an awards ceremony in London last week, where he was named the O2 X Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 in recognition of his achievement, Palmer told the Sunday Herald of a torturous invention process which saw him laughed at and driven to the edge of ruin.
In a nutshell, d3o is an advanced polymer with an intelligent molecular structure that flows with you as you move but, when shocked, locks together to become rigid enough to absorb impact energy. In its simplest form, it is like an automatic knee-pad that can be sown seamlessly into a pair of jeans.
Yet when former DuPont scientist Palmer approached the world's largest polymer companies with his invention, they said it was impossible. Despite his evidence, several key industry boffins refused to believe such a fabric could ever be successfully manufactured.
"I stood there telling them that I'd already done this, but they outright refused to entertain the possibility. Were they calling me a liar? A fool? I really don't know, but I was frustrated, furious and appalled by the lack of imagination that commercial science exhibited."
In 1999 Palmer sold his house and car, moved into a friend's spare bedroom and did it himself. Providing funding out of his own pocket, he kick-started the process in a garage lab, calling in academic help from friends where needed and pushing d3o to the point where it was ready for production.
Today the material they said couldn't happen is fast becoming a common component of cutting-edge protective equipment, with the d3o brand beginning to feature in a range of winter and motor sports products worldwide. It has been adopted enthusiastically by the likes of US Olympic ski team, the four-times Everest climber Kenton Cool and Olympic cyclist Craig McClean. Industry observers predict the miracle cloth could be earning annual global revenues of $2 billion within five years.
"The hardest part now is keeping focused. Every day brings fresh enquiries about potential new applications for d3o from airlines, police forces, and car manufacturers," said Palmer.
Presenting his award on Thursday, O2 director Simon Devonshire said: "Richard is an inspiration to anyone with a dream and the drive to realise it."
While he intends to continue developing and enhancing his revolutionary new material, Palmer's Brighton-based development lab team has already produced a range of other products. They include a rigid Frisbee that folds like a soft handkerchief when you catch it, and the world's first bullet-proof wallpaper, a lightweight protective covering that absorbs and contains the deadly shrapnel generated when a projectile pierces most buildings.
"I know it must sound like we're trying to build a Batlab here, but I make no apology for that," said Palmer. "This is what science is supposed to be; something that excites the imagination and inspires the mind."