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Their Game Plan: Armoring Athletes

Siblings at UMass Lowell Develop Gel to Protect Players

UMass Lowell seniors, twins Elizabeth Kender, center, and Laura, and their brother Stephen, a UML sophomore, are developing a flexible, modular body armor for sports protective equipment. Lowell Sun photo by Julie Malakie
UMass Lowell seniors, twins Elizabeth Kender, center, and Laura, and their brother Stephen, a UML sophomore, are developing a flexible, modular body armor for sports protective equipment. SUN / JULIA MALAKIE

09/05/2015
Lowell Sun
By Amelia Pak-Harvey

LOWELL -- The Kender sibling trio have a lot in common.

Twins Laura and Elizabeth, along with their younger brother Stephen, study engineering at UMass Lowell.

Now, the siblings have put their heads together to create a innovative type of body armor for athletes that has already received $4,750 in development grants.

"We've always loved math and science, and so coming to UMass Lowell, we knew we wanted to do engineering," said Laura Kender. "It's always been a dream of Elizabeth and I to design sports equipment."

As athletes on the lacrosse team, the sisters know a thing or two about athletic injuries.

But their brother stumbled upon the idea after watching "The Dark Knight" and noticing that Batman's cape solidifies to the touch.

"I was at work and I was looking through some research journals and I saw these electrorheological fluids and magnetorheological fluids -- fluids that harden in response to electric and magnetic fields," he said. "It made me think of that Batman cape."

The armor consists of a unique gel that fills individual capsules of flexible plastic.

Stephen Kender compares the liquid -- calcium carbonate and polyethylene glycol -- to a corn starch mixture that hardens when something hits it.

"It acts more like a liquid under normal pressures, and then upon impact it immediately hardens and it increases its viscosity in accordance with how much force is being applied," he said.

The Kenders put a provisional patent on their idea and formed a team in the DifferenceMakers program, a UMass Lowell initiative that awards grant money to student teams for innovative ideas.

The Chelmsford siblings have tested the gel but have yet to create a prototype of the armor in the university's new MakerSpace. Their tests found that the gel did 20 percent better in force dissipation than regular pieces of sports equipment.

At only less than half an inch thick, the armor could potentially protect any body part. The clip-on modular design also means athletes could add more protection as needed.

"We wanted to figure out a way to help the impact of a blow to the head," Laura Kender said. "But then just through our research and design, it can go anywhere on the body."

Turning engineering into a family business has worked out well for the siblings, who insist they work well together.

They even made their last name into an acronym for their self-titled KEnDERS Body Armor -- Kinetic Energy Dissipating Equipment Response System.

After more testing on a prototype, the team envisions using the equipment in local athletic programs and bringing data to potential investors.

At UMass Lowell, the Kenders have a number of people to thank -- graduate student Kyle Pitochelli who helped them with a business model, as well as Professors Tom O'Donnell, Meg Kline, Stephen Driscoll, Stephen Johnston and the entire DifferenceMakers program.

The siblings see their choice in UMass Lowell as one of the best decisions they've made.

"Elizabeth always says it, and I agree with it," Laura Kender said. "I didn't expect to love college this much."