Like something right out of the movie "The Matrix," Polish researchers say they've developed a new body armor made out of liquid that's "better than Kevlar," the high-performance synthetic fiber DuPont (NYSE: DD) created in the 1960s that's since become a mainstay of bullet-resistant vests and helmets worn by the military and the police.
A body in motion
Moratex Institute of Security Technologies is working on next-generation protective systems that incorporate non-Newtonian liquids known as shear-thickening fluids, or STFs, that harden on impact. The reaction can virtually eliminate the risk of death caused by the blunt-force trauma that can still happen to someone wearing a Kevlar vest.
That's a lot of science right there in that paragraph, but you can think of it as the high school chemistry experiment where upon mixing corn starch and water, the resulting fluid still runs through your fingers if you squeeze it, but if you punch it, it instantly solidifies. In fact, you can run across the mixture and not sink in.
As the Reuters video shows, such STFs solve the problem of deflection that occurs for a wearer of a Kevlar vest. Although the fibrous material may stop a bullet from penetrating, there may be significant trauma resulting from the force that's concentrated at the point of impact, still causing death in some cases. Because STFs spread out the area absorbing the impact, such blunt-force injuries are minimized, or even eliminated.
Unfortunately, you can't make an entire suit out of shear-thickening fluids because of the extreme weight, which exceeds that of even several layers of Kevlar. And that's good news for DuPont, because Moratex is looking into how it can combine STFs with Kevlar.
A bullet-proof business?
Kevlar is part of DuPont's safety and protection segment that generated $3.9 billion in sales in 2014, or 11% of total revenues, but it is also a target of billionaire investor Carl Icahn's program to split up the chemicals conglomerate into seven business units.
Division growth has been lagging behind other segments, and Icahn feels DuPont needs to focus more attention on high-growth businesses like agriculture, nutrition and health, and industrial biosciences. Icahn says DuPont has instead expanded capacity into low-growth areas, and specifically points to the $500 million capacity expansion it completed for Kevlar in 2011, despite declining military demand for the material due to the winding down of U.S. involvement in Middle East conflicts.
Yet even by Icahn's own calculations, safety and protection was one of only two DuPont businesses that exceeded organic revenue growth against peers like 3M (NYSE: MMM), though EBITDA margins lagged. It was also one of DuPont's most profitable divisions, and only because of increased demand for Kevlar (and Nomex) did segment sales rise in 2014.
With 62% of DuPont's safety and protection sales coming from foreign markets, the flare-up of global hot spots means sales wouldn't require the U.S. military to be engaged. If Moratex were able to successfully meld the shear-thickening fluid with Kevlar, the advance could invigorate the business as protective systems of foreign military agencies upgraded their protective systems.
The future of consumer products
Additionally, the researchers see a future for the fluids in sports equipment, car bumpers, and road protective barriers, which dovetails well with the many uses today of Kevlar outside of body armor.
The fabric is found in a wide variety of commercial, industrial, and consumer goods products, including Adidas football cleats and Lenovo's Motorola Droid Ultra, as well as Airbus planes, Goodyear tires, and fiber-optic cables.
DuPont might not be a stock you'd want to invest in betting that a Matrix-like fluid would be able to perk up sales, but is it a stock to consider otherwise? According to data from Morningstar, the shares are valued at 18.5 times earnings and 16 times next year's estimated earnings, less than even the S&P 500, which goes off at more than 18 times future earnings. Yet it also offers a 14% discount to rivals like 3M.
DuPont's stock did hit a 52-week high in mid-March, riding Icahn's breakup battle higher, but shares have since fallen back 10% after the company failed to reach a rapprochement with the billionaire investor over representation on the board of directors.
A proxy fight is looming, and risks abound no matter which way the vote goes, but with the shares offering a discount to the market, even if its business lags some of its rivals in a number of respects, buying shares could be a perfectly reasonable action to take, particularly if developments like futuristic liquids ultimately pan out.