Cars are hard, unfriendly objects, and people tend to be squishy and vulnerable. Volvo’s new airbag, available only on the European V40 sedan, uses an array of sensor to detect impact with a person and inflates a cushion on the front of the car. The deployment lifts the relatively flexible hood away from the unforgiving engine block and the cushion protects a body from smashing into the car’s frame or windshield.

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Fantastic Plastic Ballistics

Polyurethane, the material commonly used in the bulletproof windows at pawn shops and banks, possesses some interesting properties. At the nano scale, it is both rubbery and glassy, and it heals itself around projectile impacts — that’s why just an inch of it can stop a bullet. Nobody knows exactly why or how it works, but two researchers at Rice think they’ve got some answers.

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Ned Thomas and Jae-Hwang Lee created a self-assembling polymer, made from layers of polystyrene (the same material that’s in CD jewel cases) and another material known as PDMS whose elasticity makes it useful for caulking and contact lenses. The researchers layered these together in an alternating pattern of slices 5 to 20 nanometers thick, then fired miniature glass beads into the plastic and viewed the results under an electron microscope. By understanding what material combinations work best, their study could usher in a new era of lightweight, transparent shielding. The layering approach works well for protection in general, taking advantage of each material’s properties. Speck’s phone cases, for example, use a patented dual-layer design — a hard shell outside and a softer core against the vulnerable property inside.

Shaken, but Not Stirred

In cities that lie on fault lines, tremors are a common occurrence. Modern construction means that moderate tremors won’t take the building down, but they can wreak havoc on sensitive mechanical equipment inside. This seismic absorption table, developed by THK, keeps crucial servers and priceless art objects safe regardless of what’s happening outside.

The magic is in super-stretchy elastomer bearings or complex series of pulleys and tension ropes. Some of THK's tables can absorb motion of up to two feet while keeping thousands of pounds of fragile stuff almost perfectly still.

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The Polar Express

When doing research in an incredibly harsh climate like that of Antarctica, some extreme measures are needed to keep the scientists safe and warm. Each country that has established a base on the frozen tundra brings its own style: the British Halley VI sits on metal stilts attached to enormous skis, Belgium’s Princess Elisabeth Antarctic station is entirely self-sufficient and produces zero emissions, and India’s Bharati Research Station upcycled 134 shipping containers for science.

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They all provide creature comforts, and they do it in style — one has to keep up appearances on the world research stage, and an aprés-ski in a wooden shanty isn’t going to cut it.

Inspired to arm your personal gadgets with beautifully designed protection? Head here to check out Speck's line of unique, durable cases.

Justin Levinson is the Online Editor at Makeshift. He's also an expert on the future of work.