A high school friend once related the story about how his father, a chemist for an environmental waste concern, disposed of a problematic quantity of metallic sodium by dumping it into one of the more polluted rivers in southern New England. Despite the fact that the local residents were used to seeing all manner of noxious hijinx in the river, the resulting explosion was supposedly enough to warrant a call to the police and an expeditious retreat back to the labs. It was a good story, but not especially believable back in the day.
After seeing this video of how the War Department dealt with surplus sodium in 1947, I’m not so sure. I had always known how reactive sodium is, ever since demonstrations in chemistry class where a flake of the soft gray metal would dance about in a petri dish full of water and eventually light up for a few exciting seconds. The way the US government decided to dispose of 20 tons of sodium was another thing altogether. The metal was surplus war production, probably used in incendiary bombs and in the production of aluminum for airplanes. No longer willing to stockpile it, the government tried to interest industry in the metal, but to no avail due to the hazard and expense of shipping the stuff. Sadly (and as was often the case in those days), they just decided to dump it.
Madison, WI hackerspace Sector67 is in a period of transition as they move from their current rented location to a new property that will be their permanent home a half mile away. Last Wednesday (September 20, 2017) an unfortunate propane explosion in the new building led to the injury of Chris Meyer, the founder and director of the hackerspace.
The structure has been stabilized and renovation is continuing, but Chris was seriously burned and will be in the hospital for at least a month with a much longer road to complete recovery. It is fortunate that nobody else was injured.
This accident comes at a time when Sector67 essentially has two spaces to maintain; the existing space is still running, but many of the members are focused on the construction of the new space. The building needs significant work before the move can take place. Currently the roof is being raised so that the building can go from one awkward-height story to two normal stories, doubling the size. An expiring lease and imminent demolition of the current location by developers means the clock is still ticking on the move, and this explosion means Sector67 will have to work even harder, and without the presence and constant effort of the person who has been leading the project.
Normally, when something explodes it tends to be a bad day for all involved. But not every explosion is intended to maim or kill. Plenty of explosions are designed to save lives every day, from the highway to the cockpit to the power grid. Let’s look at some of these pyrotechnic wonders and how they keep us safe.
The first I can recall hearing the term explosive bolts was in relation to the saturation TV coverage of the Apollo launches in the late 60s and early 70s. Explosive bolts seemed to be everywhere, releasing umbilicals and restraining the Saturn V launch stack on the pad. Young me pictured literal bolts machined from solid blocks of explosive and secretly hoped there was a section for them in the hardware store so I could have a little fun.
Pyrotechnic fasteners are mechanical fasteners (bolts, studs, nuts, etc.) that are designed to fail in a predictable fashion due to the detonation of an associated pyrotechnic device. Not only must they fail predictably, but they also have to be strong enough to resist the forces they will experience before failure is initiated. Failure is also typically rapid and clean, meaning that no debris is left to interfere with the parts that were previously held together by the fastener. And finally, the explosive failure can’t cause any collateral damage to the fastened parts or nearby structures.
Pyrotechnic fasteners fall into two broad categories. Explosive bolts look much like regular bolts, and are machined out of the same materials you’d expect to find any bolt made of. The explosive charge is usually internal to the shank of the bolt with an initiating device of some sort in the head. To ensure clean, predictable separation, there’s a groove machined into the bolt to create a shear plane.
Frangible nuts are another type of pyrotechnic fastener. These tend to be used for larger load applications, like holding down rockets. Frangible nuts usually have two smaller threaded holes adjacent to the main fastener thread; pyrotechnic booster charges split the nut across the plane formed by the threaded holes to release the fastener cleanly.
“Eject! Eject! Eject!”
Holding back missiles is one thing, but where pyrotechnic fasteners save the most lives might be in the cockpits of fighter jets around the world. When things go wrong in a fighter, pilots need to get out in a hurry. Strapping into a fighter cockpit is literally sitting on top of a rocket and being surrounded by explosives. Most current seats are zero-zero designs — usable at zero airspeed and zero altitude — that propel the seat and pilot out of the aircraft on a small rocket high enough that the parachute can deploy before the pilot hits the surface. Dozens of explosive charges take care of ripping the aircraft canopy apart, deploying the chute, and cutting the seat free from the parachuting pilot, typically unconscious and a couple of inches shorter from spinal disc compression after his one second rocket ride.
Behind the Wheel
There’s little doubt that airbags have saved countless lives since they’ve become standard equipment in cars and trucks. When you get into a modern vehicle, you are literally surrounded by airbags — steering wheel, dashboard, knee bolsters, side curtains, seatbelt bags, and even the rear seat passenger bags. And each one of these devices is a small bomb waiting to explode to save your life.
When we think of explosives we tend to think of substances that can undergo rapid oxidation with subsequent expansion of hot gasses. By this definition, airbag inflators aren’t really explosives, since they are powered by the rapid chemical decomposition of nitrogenous compounds, commonly sodium azide in the presence of potassium nitrate and silicon dioxide. But the difference is purely academic; anyone who has ever had an airbag deploy in front of them or watched any of the “hold my beer and watch this” airbag prank video compilations will attest to the explosive power held in that disc of chemicals.
When a collision is detected by sensors connected to the airbag control unit (ACU), current is applied to an electric match, similar to the engine igniters used in model rocketry, buried within the inflator module. The match reaches 300°C within a few milliseconds, causing the sodium azide to rapidly decompose into nitrogen gas and sodium. Subsequent reactions mop up the reactive byproducts to produce inert silicate glasses and add a little more nitrogen to the mix. The entire reaction is complete in about 40 milliseconds, and the airbags inflate fully within 80 milliseconds, only to deflate again almost instantly through vent holes in the back of the bag. By the time you perceive that you were in an accident, the bag hangs limply from the steering wheel and with any luck, you get to walk away from the accident.
We’ve covered a little about utility poles and all the fascinating bits of gear that hang off them. One of the pieces of safety gear that lives in the “supply space” at the top of the poles is the fuse cutout, or explosive disconnector. This too is a place where a small explosion can save lives — not only by protecting line workers but also by preventing a short circuit from causing a fire.
Cutouts are more than just fuses, though. Given the nature of the AC transmission and distribution grid, the lines that cutouts protect are at pretty high voltages of 11 kV or more. That much voltage means the potential for sustained arcing if contacts aren’t rapidly separated; the resulting plasma can do just as much if not more damage than the short circuit. So a small explosive cartridge is used to rapidly kick the fuse body of a cutout out of the frame and break the circuit as quickly as possible. Arc suppression features are also built into the cutout to interrupt the arc before it gets a chance to form.
[Big Clive] recently did a teardown of another piece of line safety gear, an 11 kV lightning arrestor with an explosive disconnector. With a Dremel tool and a good dose of liquid courage, he liberated a carbon slug from within the disconnector, which when heated by a line fault ignites a .22 caliber charge similar to those used with powder actuated fastener tools. The rapid expansion of gasses ruptures the cases of the disconnector and rapidly breaks the circuit.
We’ve covered a few of the many ways that the power of expanding gas can be used in life safety applications. There are other ways, too — snuffing out oil field fires comes to mind, as does controlled demolition of buildings. But the number of explosives protecting us from more common accidents is quite amazing, all the more so when you realize how well engineered they are. After all, these everyday bombs aren’t generally blowing up without good reason.
Thankfully it’s rare that we report on something as tragic as the death of a 17-year old, but the fact that the proximate cause was a 3D printer makes it all the worse and important for us to discuss.
The BBC report tells of a recently concluded coroner’s inquest into the December death of a young man in a fire at his family’s magic shop in Lincolnshire. The building was gutted by the fire, and the victim died of smoke inhalation. The inquest found that he had been working with a 3D printer in the shop and using hairspray to prepare the bed, a tip he apparently picked up from forums and blogs.
Unfortunately for this young man and his family, the online material didn’t mention that hairspray propellant contains volatile hydrocarbons like propane, cyclopropane, n-butane and isobutane — all highly flammable. Apparently the victim used enough hairspray in a small enough space to create an explosive mixture of fuel and air. Neighbors reported a gigantic fireball that consumed the shop, which took 50 firefighters to control.
While the inquest doesn’t directly blame the 3D printer as the source of ignition — which could just as easily have been a spark from a light switch, or a pilot light on a water heater — it does mention that the hot end can reach 300C. And the fact remains that were it not for the 3D printer and the online tips, it’s unlikely that a 17-year old boy would be using enough hairspray in an enclosed space to create what amounted to a bomb.
By all accounts, the victim was a bright and thoughtful kid, and for this to have happened is an unmitigated tragedy for his family and friends. This young man probably had a bright future and stood to contribute to the hacker community but for a brief lapse of judgment. Before anyone starts slinging around the blame in the comments section, think about it — how many time haves you done something like this and gotten away with it? This kid got badly unlucky and paid the ultimate price. Maybe we should make his death worth something by looking at what we do that skates a little too close to the thin edge of the ice.
Ballistic gel is a broad term referring to a large chunk of dense gel generally used in firearms-related testing to reliably and consistently measure things like bullet deformation, fragmentation, and impact. It’s tough, elastic, and in many ways resembles a gigantic gummi bear. Fans of Mythbusters (or certain DIY railguns) will recognize the stuff. Water-based blocks made with natural gelatin can be easily made at home, but end up with a yellow-brown color and have a limited shelf life due to evaporation. Clear blocks exist that are oil-based and don’t dry out like the water-based ones. It’s one of these that is in the embedded animation below.
Slow motion video capture is a natural companion to just about anything that you’d need ballistic gel for, and good thing — because the video captured what appears to be a diesel effect! The block is hit with a bullet, and as the bullet rapidly expands and dumps its energy into the gel, a cavity expands rapidly. During this process, some of the (oil-based) material in the cavity has been vaporized. After the expanded bullet exits (to the right of the gif above but easier to see in the video below), the cavity in the block begins to collapse. The resulting pressure increase appears to ignite the vaporized material, which explodes with a flash followed by some exhaust.
This effect has been observed in ballistic gel before, but this video shows a particularly clear ignition, followed by a secondary expansion of the cavity, then a flatulent-ish ejection of exhaust as the cavity collapses. If nothing else, it’s a very striking effect clearly captured on film. Slow-motion capture of destructive forces makes visible many things that would otherwise happen too quickly to perceive.
On the morning of September 26th, 2013 the city of Orlando was rocked by an explosion. Buildings shook, windows rattled, and Amtrak service on a nearby track was halted. TV stations broke in with special reports. The dispatched helicopters didn’t find fire and brimstone, but they did find a building with one wall blown out. The building was located at 47 West Jefferson Street. For most this was just another news day, but a few die-hard fans recognized the building as Creative Engineering, home to a different kind of explosion: The Rock-afire Explosion.
The Inventor and His Band of Robots
Many of us have heard of the Rock-afire Explosion, the animatronic band which graced the stage of ShowBiz pizza from 1980 through 1990. For those not in the know, the band was created by the inventor of Whac-A-Mole, [Aaron Fechter], engineer, entrepreneur and owner of Creative Engineering. When ShowBiz pizza sold to Chuck E. Cheese, the Rock-afire Explosion characters were replaced with Chuck E. and friends. Creative Engineering lost its biggest customer. Once over 300 employees, the company was again reduced to just [Aaron]. He owned the building which housed the company, a 38,000 square foot shop and warehouse. Rather than sell the shop and remaining hardware, [Aaron] kept working there alone. Most of the building remained as it had in the 1980’s. Tools placed down by artisans on their last day of work remained, slowly gathering dust.