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Rethinking explosives to power tools, implode tumors, and clear arteries

For most, explosive detonations illicit visions of building demolition and Mythbusters-style car bombs. But in a keynote at ETech today, Dr.
Written by Chris Jablonski, Inactive

For most, explosive detonations illicit visions of building demolition and Mythbusters-style car bombs. But in a keynote at ETech today, Dr. Christa Hockensmith from the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC), explained new creative applications that are, both, in research and "untried, untested, unrealized."

"I'm not going to explode anything," she told an amused audience of elite technologists.

She first simply defined what an explosion is: A chemical reaction of explosive materials that releases enormous amounts of energy.

The research center is affiliated with New Mexico Tech and specializes in the research, development, and analysis of energetic materials for both corporate and government clients.  In other words, they love to blow stuff up as the picture on the left illustrates.

"We retrofit or come up with ideas to retrofit buildings with material that will protect walls from breaking," she said.  An explosion next to a cinder block wall can buckle it, but if it's lined with a metal sheet it will bounce back, saving lives.

Hockensmith explained the usual uses of explosive detonations such as munitions, fireworks, explosive materials for the military, mining, excavation, roads, demolitions, etc.  Then came the unusual small-scale ideas:

  • Tools that use hydraulic or compressed air, like Jackhammers: Workers can do away with the cords and insert cartridges the size of a walnut that explode and force the hammer downward. This technique can be be used for nail guns, spray guns, chipping tools, and others tools ordinarily powered by air or fluids.
  • An explosion powered pin insertion tool that could be used in rock climbing or rescue operations.  The small and controlled detonation would ram the pin into the rock.
  • Production of industrial diamonds used for abrasive grinding wheels, cutters, etc.: Carbon is placed into a canister with explosives on the exterior. The pressure wave and heat caused by the detonation, the same forces that create gem-quality diamonds over long periods of time, create diamonds for industrial use.
  • Explosive-aided polymers: Polymeric materials are used as a coating around other chemicals for safe storage until they're delivered during a manufacturing process. "We suggested that we add explosives to the chemicals and coat the whole thing in a polymer then put it on the shelf and then use it when needed to so that the chemicals get delivered in one shot at the right place and time...worked like a charm," she said.

Hockensmith then proposed a few additional untested ideas:

  • Polypropylene containers with medical supplies: you can "undeform" a container so that it can be shipped. The small explosive can reshape the container while a filter prevents contamination.
  • Tiny explosives to destroy tumors:  Imploding them may prevent uncontrolled bleeding and letting the body clear the debris
  • Molecular-level: May clear plugged arteries and blood vessels without running balloons through the vessels.

She ended her talk with a pitch for explosive camp, June 21-27, 2009, for high school students 16 years and older. "We want to show them that explosions are are useful, with a huge emphasis on safety," she said.

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