This month, as part of our special on the future of education, PopSci presents 10 labs where students do serious research (and career training) by blowing stuff up.Lab: DHS Center of Excellence for Explosives, Mitigation and Response at the University of Rhode Island
Career: FBI explosives expert, government defense contractor
Car bombs, improvised explosive devices and pipe bombs—for students at the University of Rhode Island's energetic materials lab, those tools are as common as a hammer is to a carpenter. The lab, run by chemist Jimmie Oxley and supported largely by the Department of Homeland Security, offers the most diverse explosives curriculum in the U.S.
When American and coalition troops rolled into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, they quickly began doing exactly what any military playbook said they should do, leveraging their superior firepower and aerial superiority into a string of quick victories. In both engagements, coalition forces quickly hammered conventional military threats into submission and settled into a long role of occupation and rebuilding. That's when the bombs started going off.
For as long as I can remember, I've loved gunpowder. One of my fondest childhood memories is pulling down volume G of the encyclopedia and seeing the formula for this magic substance for the first time. Saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, listed with exact percentages! That was heady stuff for a kid who had been forced to rely on collecting match heads for flammable material. But where to get the ingredients? I settled on hitting up pharmacists, telling one that my mom had sent me out to get saltpeter for canning, and a different one that she'd sent me out for sulfur and I didn't know why (because I couldn't think of a better cover story).
Explosives detection is a hot place for progressive science right now. One Colorado State researcher is breeding plants that change colors when certain molecules come in contact with them, and others are modeling chemical sensors on everything from butterfly wings to frog eggs. Now MIT may have trumped them all with a carbon nanotube and bee venom-based sensor that can detect explosives at the highest resolution: a single molecule.
By Jonathan ParkinsonPosted 02.10.2011 at 12:59 pm 10 Comments
A team of scientists is feeding TNT to a flock of sheep. A. Morrie Craig, a veterinary scientist at Oregon State University, has found that the cud-chewing mammals can efficiently clean up explosives-contaminated soil, of which there are 1.3 million tons throughout the U.S. TNT and other explosives from military munitions training and the remnants of old factories remain in the ground for decades.
Engineers are always looking for ways to pare down the size of technologies, and apparently that penchant for miniaturization extends to bomb-sniffing canines as well. Israeli researchers are trading in their dogs for mice trained in explosive detection, using teams of tiny rodents to keep dangerous materials out of airports.