A composite brace that could allow sports players to continue competing despite injuries — including broken or fractured bones — has been designed by researchers at Virginia Tech University in the US.
Any conditions that could benefit from more effective immobilisation would be potential targets.
The brace has already been used successfully on an American football player who had fractured his ulna. Thanks to the brace the player was able to take part in a game, despite the injury being less than three weeks old.
Existing compression-moulded polypropylene bracing systems are limited by their relatively low stiffness. However, the Virginia team discovered that one made from uniaxial polypropylene and carbon fibre composite sheeting is much stiffer, allowing the brace to maintain protection and prevent the injury from moving under far higher stresses than a normal brace wearer would experience.
‘The current braces might do a fine job of protecting the public, but athletes have a wider protection window,’ said Prof Brian Love of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Virginia Tech, who designed the brace with his biomaterials class.
The brace does not have to be specially constructed for each individual wearer. A compression moulding system is used to make the general shape. The form can then be trimmed to match the user more effectively. Each moulding takes under an hour, making the brace quick to construct.
‘Many companies supply higher performance materials that have more stiffness, but the ability to mould them on-site at athletic and training facilities appears to be another limitation,’ said Love.
Following approaches from a number of interested parties, the team is now looking into ways of improving the design, and is evaluating a device made from a bi-directional laminate to see if it can provide even higher performance levels.