The Labs That Go Boom: The Trauma Mechanics Research Initiative Crushes Skulls

Fun for students, but tough luck for the crash-test dummy

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: Trauma Mechanics Research Initiative at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln
Career: Helmet or body armor designer

At least a fifth of the wounded U.S. soldiers evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan returned with traumatic brain injuries, many of which were the result of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). To better understand how shock waves from IEDs affect the body and brain, members of
Namas Chandra’s lab at the University of Nebraska simulate actual blasts with a piston driven by compressed helium.

The piston propels air down 40-foot tubes at 900 miles per hour, mimicking a shock wave from an IED. The blast impacts live pigs, human cadavers and dummy heads. Sensor readings from the dummy heads quantify movement and the strength of the event’s pressure waves. Students examine the neurons in the animal and human models to see how they reacted during the blast. And students analyze video of the test, taken at 500,000 frames per second.

Eventually, Chandra says his work will help designers improve helmets to better withstand blasts from IEDs, something current protection does not do very well.