Explosive blasts at URI uncover life-saving clues in super slow motion


SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — Explosions without explosives inside a rare type of laboratory at the University of Rhode Island are helping researchers develop potentially life-saving materials.

And as was the case with many adjustments around the world, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 drastically changed the focus of the Dynamic Photo Mechanics lab that’s been run by Professor Arun Shukla since 1981.

Shukla’s so-called shock lab includes a 60 foot long, tank-cannon like tube and a pressure tank, among other pieces of equipment designed to put different types of composite material through a variety of high-pressure experiments.

“9 / 11 was a major shift,” Shukla said. “There are half a dozen places in the world that do these types of experiments. Here, many applications are connected to protecting us from terrorism attacks, catastrophic explosions.”

Shukla’s team conducts experiments for various entities, including the military.

“Firing,” one of Shukla’s students yells, moments before sending pressurized helium through the tube.

The destructive stream travels at about two times the speed of sound, smacking a square, dotted composite with blasts.

“When something explodes, it gives off the same type of pressure,” Shukla explains. “But this is a safer way of doing experiments rather than using explosives.”

The jets of helium can crash into samples with 2000 pounds per square inch of pressure. A human lung collapses at 60 pounds per square inch of pressure.

“We are trying to create structures and materials that can withstand such catastrophic explosions.”

The organizations that fund the experiments have different reasons for wanting to know how materials hold up, including creating structures that might protect soldiers, police and civilians during a terrorist attack.

“Exactly the same piece of material that was subjected to a slightly lower shock than this,” Shukla said, holding a shattered square next to one that was still intact. “This one was able to withstand it. The other one, no.”

The lab also experiments with the dangers of water pressure.

Another piece of equipment can prematurely age different types of tubes with heat and pressure. The hollow cylinders represent structures like submarines and oil or gas pipelines.

Depending on the experiment’s dynamics, the items can be aged and then put in a water-filled pressure tank that can simulate floating up to a half-mile underwater.

“That allows us to simulate a situation where something has been [deep in the ocean] for a long time,” Shukla said. “And we see when it finally deteriorates.”

The explosions without explosives are unique, but what sets the URI lab apart, is its system of high-tech cameras and lights.

Your cell phone records video at 30 frames per second. The cameras in the shock lab capture impacts at up to 2 million frames per second.

The dots play a role in developing potentially life-saving material.

“It will tell them in real time where the damage started. Why did it start?” Shukla said. “We are trying to create structures and materials that can withstand such catastrophic explosions.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau