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How Color-Changing Crystals Could Alter the Way Football Handles Concussions

A monster hit turns them from, say, green to purple.

credit: Wikimedia Commons user Jim Ferguson

Brain injuries are incredibly serious, but can be incredibly hard to diagnose in the heat of battle—or, say, a game. This is a grave issue that has plagued all sports—amateur and professional—but none so visibly as football. Earlier this year, a Philadelphia judge approved a plan that will see the National Football League pay out an estimated $1 billion to about 6,000 retired football players currently suffering from serious concussion-related diseases, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.


And a new Will Smith vehicle, to be released in December, is set to bring even more national attention to football brain injuries. In Concussion, Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who made the startling connection between football players, brain injuries, and their long-term effects.

Whether the NFL is serious about tackling its brain injury problem is up for debate. But a new color-changing crystal created by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania could at least make serious concussions easier to detect. That might give football players opportunities stop playing before a brain injury becomes even more serious.

Force turns the crystals from green (left) to purple (right), via youtube screencapture

The research team, led by chemist Shu Yang, used a technique called holographic lithography to carefully engineer crystals of a specific color. Once a large force is applied to those crystals, however, their structures change, giving them a different hue.

What does all this complex science have to do with football? Yang’s team found it could incorporate those crystals into a polymer, which could then be molded into your standard football helmet.

“If the force was large enough, and you could easily tell that, then you could immediately seek medical attention,” Yang told phys.org about a potential color-changing helmet.

Yang cautions that right now, the crystal-making process is an extremely expensive one, and not yet viable for mass production. But the advances are great news in a country that has become increasingly obsessed with football—but also increasingly worried about its health consequences.

Via USA Today

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