Paper versus polystyrene: New cardboard bike helmet will save trees… and your life.

Morbid ideas of mortality often trail the thoughts of a cyclist. After all, there is very little to protect the fragile frame of the human body from crashing into other vehicles and/or Murphy’s Law. The standard polystyrene helmet is one of the few measures to ease concerns over cyclist safety, but just how safe is it?

British product developer Anirudha Surabhi thinks not.

“The design of helmets hasn’t changed in 45 years,” he stated in an interview with Wired Magazine. “Whether you pay £20 or £120, you get the same product.”

All helmets work to decrease the risk or severity of bicycle-related injuries by creating a zone around the cranium that cushions the sudden blow of deceleration. In other words, a helmet absorbs some of the impact of the crash, and in so doing, it helps to protect the cranium.

Even so, it was a bicycle accident one day that prompted Surabhi to reconsider the humble helmet. Two things were revealed to him that day in which he “hit the door, did a couple of somersaults and fell straight on [his] head”: first, that polystyrene helmets are not entirely reliable in that they break and crack easily, and secondly, such helmets are rendered “completely unusable” after a collision.

Pre-existing helmets on the market should be lighter, stronger, safer. To realise this, Surabhi turned to ornithology, the study of birds. Specifically, he looked into the cranial particularities of the woodpecker bird.

Photograph of the Golden-naped Woodpecker from Wikipedia
Photograph of the Golden-naped Woodpecker from Wikipedia

As we know, the woodpecker ‘pecks’ at wooden trunks with its chisel-like bill for insects and grubs. It is a little known fact that these hardy birds peck 10 times per second, 12,000 times a day; however, there are no resulting headaches, no brain injuries! According to Surabhi, this is in part due to the presence of a soft, corrugated cartilage that runs between the bird’s skull and beak, which absorbs the impact of pecking.

Surabhi’s paper helmet design emulates this natural shock absorber. By weaving a double layer of honeycomb cardboard called Dual Density Honey Comb Board, small ‘airbags’ are created throughout the helmet which cushion the impact of a collision.

“So when you have a crash, what these airbags do is they go pop, pop, pop, pop, pop – and they go all the way to the bottom, without the helmet cracking. That’s what absorbs the energy,” says Surabhi in an interview with the BBC.

Photograph of the Kranium helmet from company website
Photograph of the Kranium helmet from company website

Under the name of Kranium, these helmets absorbs up to three times the level of impact of traditional polystyrene helmets. Ecologically, the Kranium is more sustainable than its plastic counterpart for it does not break as easily upon collision. Plus, its recycled cardboard constituents are completely recyclable.

I’m no cyclist, but this is terrific news to share with my friends, many of whom are re-embracing this generations-old form of getting from A to B. Be safe, and I suspect one must expect cringe-worthy jingles for this product in the future!

♫♪♫ “Crash, crash, CRASH!
Kranium goes pop,
But your head stays on.
We love Kranium.” ♫♪♫

By Vicki Choh

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