Image: Shuttershock

Inside the High-Tech US Army Lab Where Scientists Blow Things Up

After multiple security checks, I got to pay it a visit.

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Jun 30 2016, 1:00pm

Image: Shuttershock

Alfred Nobel made his fortune by blowing things up. The Swedish scientist and entrepreneur got in on the ground floor of the explosives business, and was the first to make serious coin from military and industrial applications of a new chemical called nitroglycerin. Extremely potent but highly sensitive, nitroglycerin had the power to transform the world. Trouble was, it's very dangerous. Under the right conditions, a slight shock can cause it to detonate.

On September 3, 1864, a huge blast ripped through Nobel's explosives factory in Stockholm, where his company was manufacturing nitroglycerin for the military. The explosion killed five people, including the scientist's younger brother. This tragedy spurred Nobel to create explosives that were safer to handle than the notoriously unstable nitroglycerin. The result was dynamite, which earned him a fortune—paying for his eponymous prize—and is still used to this day.

In 2016, the science of blowing things up has come a long way. One of the most advanced facilities for testing exactly how explosives inflict their deadly damage is located at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a huge US Army research facility in rural Maryland, about an hour's drive northeast of Baltimore.

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Here, military scientists analyze the fundamental characteristics of different types of explosives, looking at how the energy they produce affects objects, from bunkers to bodies, in the path of the blast wave.

The Army guards its secrets closely. In June, after two separate security checks, I was granted clearance to visit their high-tech explosions laboratory.

The squat, concrete bunker that houses the test facility. Image: Paul Tadich

On that searing hot and swamp-humid morning, I entered the military base, where I was accompanied at all times by an escort. I drove 20 minutes or so, past a scenic lake populated with fishing boats, and onto an island situated somewhere on the base. I was warned against photographing any signs, and most of the buildings, too.

A few winding roads later, the lab came into view—a squat, burly concrete structure that looked like it could withstand a direct nuclear hit. As I approached, I could see two red lamps mounted on poles. A very stern sign said that under no circumstances should you turn left when the lights are flashing.

But the lights were out, and the testing range quiet. My escort and I turned right, toward the main lab space. This is where I met Richard Benjamin, a US Army research scientist who is paid to spend his time blowing things up and watching explosions at 2.5 million frames per second. The place, quite frankly, is a pubescent boy's dream.

Inside the lab, we entered a long, metal-lined workshop. At first glance, it didn't look very different from a garage workshop a suburban dad might tinker in on weekends. A homey sign read Help Keep This Place Clean. In most garages, such homilies are not posted above a bin filled with high-caliber shell casings.

The workshop. Image: Paul Tadich

Benjamin, who is the lead physical science technician at the US Army Research Lab's Detonation Science Facility, was disarmingly polite, considering he's the guardian of so much power. He's ruddy, rotund, and meticulously well-mannered.

Benjamin explained that he uses the tools in his lab to analyze in fine detail what happens to an explosive as it detonates. "The basic definition of an explosive is that when it reacts, the reaction proceeds faster than the speed of sound," said Benjamin.

As the explosive material violently degrades into a gas, shock waves build up inside of it. These shock waves press against one another, forming an expanding shell of gas. This shell rips through the material and transfers its energy to the surrounding atmosphere, which in turn rapidly expands. This energy is also transferred to any object in its path. The results can be damaging—or deadly.

An image of a video showing an artificial skull (which has the same density as a human skull) fitted with electrodes to measure the impact force of an explosion. Image: Paul Tadich

Benjamin took me over to a large TV mounted above a workbench to show me a series of clips of various types of explosive charges detonating in extreme slow-motion. This is done to analyze how the shock wave travels through the explosive.

The most striking clip showed footage of a sphere of C-4 (short for Composition-4, a military-grade plastic explosive) detonating, slowed down to the point where I could see the searing, white-hot gases escape from the metal casing surrounding the charge.

I became aware of several portholes in the room, fitted with glass as thick as my fist. There was a faint glow emanating from behind them. I asked Benjamin what the source of the light was, and he only said that it was next on the agenda.

The door leading into the blast chamber. Image: Paul Tadich

He lead me around a corner. A hydraulic pump whirred, a lock clanged open, and a metal door about a foot thick swung open. We stood face-to-face with the facility's centrepiece: the blast chamber. Inside was a reinforced-concrete cube, with walls 18 inches thick. The room was lined with a painted-over impact-resistant alloy, rusty and speckled with craters, inch-deep dents where fragments of metal were propelled into the walls.

Finally, I could see the source of the mysterious light: two movie-set-style spotlights were pointed at a raised dais in the middle of the room. That's where the explosives sat, awaiting detonation.

A mockup explosive. Image: Paul Tadich

I saw footage of a metal-jacketed cylinder, stuffed with TNT, blowing up in the test chamber. When it exploded in extreme slow motion, you could see the energy travelling down the length of the object. As each frame advanced, the metal puffed out from its rigid form as easily as a balloon inflated with air. As this line of fragmentation rolled down the length of the object, it was followed a couple of inches behind by a ferocious bloom of yellow and white fire as the hot gases expanded out of the zig-zagging cracks that formed in the casing.

An image captured from a video of TNT exploding inside a canister. Image: Paul Tadich

It really gave me a sense of the raw power contained in the chemistry of an explosion. Solid metal is forced apart into tiny, twisted fragments with ease.

Huge cameras, which sweep images at very high rates of speed across a series of imaging sensors, were positioned on the other side of the glass portholes, to capture the explosions. The chamber is designed to be sealed so all its leftovers can be captured and analyzed. This means it's almost perfectly insulated, and on the day I visited, the heat from the spotlights alone had pushed the mercury well past 30℃.

This sends the electrical charge to set off explosives in the blast chamber. Image: Paul Tadich

All this armoring and protection is absolutely necessary. Despite the foot-and-a-half-thick walls, I asked Benjamin if he can hear the explosives going off from his laboratory next door. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "You can feel it, too."

It's a stark reminder that while this is a place of science, it's also part of the US military machine. This is made abundantly clear when I asked Benjamin why he feels his work is important. With no hesitation, he answered: "It's all to help the soldier. We do what we can to make his job safer and easier."

As I was escorted in my rented Jeep to the final checkpoint, and then out again into the swampy afternoon, I was reminded of why explosives research started in the first place: to project military power.