HomeSciencePhysics“Off Switch” Makes Explosives Safer

“Off Switch” Makes Explosives Safer

• Physics 16, 44

An explosive materials fabricated with a extremely porous construction is inactive however is well “switched on” when full of water.


Just add water. Explosives used in mining operations could be safer in storage if they had a porous structure that would only allow explosions when liquid is added, according to experiments (see videos below).

Despite nice effort, researchers have failed to search out methods to make explosives solely protected throughout storage but nonetheless simply usable when wanted. Now a analysis staff has demonstrated an explosive with these properties by making a extremely porous construction for his or her explosive materials [1]. The voids stop the construction from supporting a sustained propagating wave of detonation, however filling the voids with water can rapidly restore the explosive capability. The researchers hope this method can present safer explosives to be used in areas akin to mining and oil exploration.

Storing extremely explosive supplies is inherently dangerous—within the army world, for instance, over 500 unintended explosions occurred at munitions websites between 1979 and 2013, in line with a survey [2]. These supplies could possibly be safer in the event that they could possibly be simply switched between an explosive-ready state and a “safe” state. “A switchable explosive is the holy grail of explosives research,” says chemist Alexander Mueller of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He and his colleagues imagine that they’re the primary to attain it.

In a typical explosive like TNT, following a set off, a so-called detonation wave of stress and warmth travels quickly via the fabric, triggering the explosive response in every area, which reinforces the wave because it goes. Mueller and his colleagues reasoned that by fabricating a normal explosive materials right into a matrix riddled with voids full of air, they may trigger the stress wave to rapidly dissipate however in a method that will be reversible. In preliminary simulations of such a construction, the staff discovered that if the geometry had been chosen appropriately, the voids would disrupt the wave and stop it from propagating via the fabric. In distinction, the simulations confirmed that filling the voids with an atypical fluid akin to water would protect the excessive stress of the detonation wave, permitting it to unfold.

When full of water, the porous explosive detonates cleanly and fully. (Time proven in nanoseconds.)

To exhibit the impact in apply, the researchers ran a sequence of experiments utilizing a typical industrial explosive generally known as HMX or octogen. They used a 3D printer to supply 400- 𝜇m-thick layers of parallel, cylindrical, octogen strands with 320- 𝜇m spacing between neighboring strands in a layer. With every successive layer, they rotated the alignment path by 90°, making a Lincoln Log-like construction the place every strand contacts different strands solely in layers above and beneath and solely at proper angles.

The staff sandwiched a 5-mm-thick pattern of this construction between two skinny aluminum plates. In eight experiments beneath a variety of circumstances, the researchers triggered detonation waves and captured high-speed video of the outcomes. They additionally measured the vitality launched by detecting the speed at which the 2 aluminum plates had been compelled aside.

Without water, the detonation wave is disorganized and dies out, and the explosive generates simply 2% of the vitality of the liquid-filled pattern’s explosion. The flash comes primarily from a slower, heat-propagated wave of floor burning. Note that the plates don’t transfer aside throughout this time interval, which is almost twice so long as that of the video above displaying the water-filled pattern. (Time proven in nanoseconds.)Without water, the detonation wave is disorganized and dies out, and the explosive generates simply 2% of the vitality of the liquid-filled pattern’s explosion. The flash comes primarily from a slower, heat-propagated wave of floor burning. Note that the p… Show more

In the experiment with air within the voids, the triggered detonation wave was disorganized and rapidly died out. Although a combustion entrance propagated by warmth relatively than stress moved throughout the pattern, it solely launched vitality from the floor layers. All of the experiments with liquids filling the voids triggered organized detonation waves that consumed a lot of the explosive gas and produced 45–50 occasions the vitality of the air-filled construction’s explosion.

A key distinction between the 2 instances lies within the velocity of the touring wave, Mueller says. The combustion entrance travels slower than the velocity of sound, whereas the high-pressure detonation wave is supersonic. “The supersonic delivery of the pressure is what gives an explosive such massive power,” he says.

The staff additionally discovered that the selection of fluid may have an effect on the small print of the ensuing explosion. For instance, utilizing a water answer of sodium polytungstate—a high-density liquid—elevated the vitality launched within the explosion by practically 10% and decreased the detonation wave velocity by 13%. This adjustability, the researchers say, could possibly be helpful in customizing the explosive for explicit functions.

“These results are somewhat surprising,” says explosives knowledgeable Levi Gottlieb of Rafael, a protection firm in Israel. “With air in the gaps, the detonation will not freely propagate across the material but is dissipated into the surroundings. This finding has a high likelihood of being useful.”

–Mark Buchanan

Mark Buchanan is a contract science author who splits his time between Abergavenny, UK, and Notre Dame de Courson, France.


  1. C. B. Brown et al., “Switchable explosives: Performance tuning of fluid-activated high explosive architectures,” Phys. Rev. Lett. 130, 116105 (2023).
  2. E. Berman and P. Reina, “Unplanned explosions at munitions sites (UEMS): Excess stockpiles as liabilities rather than assets,” Small Arms Surv. (2014).

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Industrial PhysicsInterdisciplinary Physics

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