So You'd Like To Be An Explosion Scientist

Explosions aren't just for padding out Michael Bay movies. They are also crucial to the production of industrial materials, keeping medical supplies safe during shipping, and even to the future of treating heart disease.

Yesterday at the Etech Conference in San Jose, chemist Christa Hockensmith explained how she got interested explosion science, and what researchers at the cutting edge are doing to make exothermic reactions work for you.

Hockensmith runs the chemistry lab at New Mexico Tech's Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), an enormous, outdoor facility in Socorro, NM, where researchers have the space to test massive explosions in relative safety. The innovations that come out of Hockensmith's chemistry research are all eventually turned into giant balls of fire and tremendous shockwaves in the mountains above her lab.

Often, explosion science starts with a specific question from a company or research lab. "Somebody will call me on the phone and say, 'Can you help me with this?'" Hockensmith said, then added with a laugh, "And of course if they have the money, we always do." Often companies will partner with EMRTC, sponsoring research that's relevant to products they create. Recently, a company came to Hockensmith asking whether she could create an "explosive-aided polymer." The company makes chemicals that are used in industrial manufacturing, but those chemicals must be encased in a protective polymer shell until the exact moment they are needed. So Hockensmith and her team created a way to set off a tiny, focused explosion that would crack the polymer shell at the instant that the chemical is added to the manufacturing process.

They also created a similar kind of explosion for use in plastic containers for medical supplies. She explained:

Shipping containers for medical supplies are often plastic, and get deformed in the shipping process. So we put small explosive charge in them which creates enough inert gas to reshape the container. A filter protects the medical supplies from contamination, and the inert gas prevents leakage and loss of sterility.

And then there are the untested ideas that Hockensmith is just starting to think about, like how extremely tiny explosions at the molecular level might be used in medical research. She mused:

We make almost 200,000 industrial diamonds per year with explosions, so what why not work on tiny explosions that could destroy tumors, or unblock arteries? We could actually make them implosions, so that they wouldn't cause bleeding.

EMRTC, where Hockensmith works, is trying to get young people interested in the science of explosions, too. For the first time this year they'll be offering "Explosives Camp" for high schoolers interested in pursuing science and engineering topics related to explosions. Explosives Camp will run from June 21-28 this summer at New Mexico Tech. If you want more information, you can mail the camp directors.