The Rhode Island Laboratory That Simulates Bomb Blasts

Arun Shukla's laboratory destroys the world's most advanced materials so that we can learn how to prevent catastrophes.

A small dark lab in a basement at the University of Rhode Island has been bombed thousands upon thousands of times. It's here where Dr. Arun Shukla and his students take next-generation materials and shoot them, simulate bomb blasts, and simulate missile and torpedo strikes.

A Motherboard team recently went out to Shukla's lab to help him destroy carbon fiber using something known as a "shock tube," which punches the material with wind at between three and five times the speed of sound. What he's simulating is the shockwave set off from a bomb blast not unlike those that might be generated by an improvised explosive device in the Middle East or, as we saw last weekend, in New York City.

The University of Rhode Island lab is one of the only ones in the world that has the ability to test the impact of "dynamic events" (such as explosions, shockwaves, or bullets) on materials in a pressurized water capsule that can simulate deep sea depths. His work has been used to design more resilient body armor, submarines, fighter jets, bridges, and buildings.

Shukla's shock tube. Image: Motherboard

We've come a long way in our understanding of how and why things break, and a lot of it is thanks to scientists like Shukla. He's primarily doing basic research, but even though his work is far-removed from the battlefield, his work has gotten more complex as the world has gotten more violent.

"Early on, we were looking at how things break, how do cracks initiate, how do they propagate, how do they bifurcate. If I take a piece of rock and throw it at a glass window, you'll see that there are thousands of cracks. Some of them move and then they branch into two or four, or six. So how do those phenomena happen and why do they happen?" he said. "Things have become more violent I think, in the last 20 years. So certainly, the area of research has drifted in that direction."

Shukla holds up a piece of carbon fiber. Image: Motherboard

Shukla has since moved on from throwing rocks at glass to simulating how bomb blasts propagate through soil (an Air Force project aimed at protecting underground silos), how earthquakes affect bridges and buildings, and, over the last 15 years or so, how bombs, missiles, and bullets break materials.

A high FPS camera captures the destruction of an aluminum tube. Image: Arun Shukla

"Although the research is somewhat driven by catastrophic events, there's a lot of positive things that come from this research," Shukla said. "Deep down, the intent—protect our soldiers and protect from events that are catastrophic. That's a big driving force for me and my students. But there are a lot of positive things that come out from this research. Our emphasis is more on learning those positive things. So if you're designing new structures, new materials, then they will benefit everyone."