ERDC takes top honor after design of blast barriers|[10/10/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 10, 2005

Federal engineers in Vicksburg have rapidly designed better ways to protect troops from explosions, helping their base earn the Army’s top research award for 2005.

It is the eighth time in 14 years that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center on Halls Ferry Road has won the top honor, most recently in 2002.

ERDC is one of about 13 Army research laboratories and is composed of seven interlocking laboratories studying various topics – pavements, soils, hydraulics, and several others.

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For defense against explosions, scientists and engineers here have developed new materials or new uses for existing materials and ways of teaching troops how to use them, ERDC director Dr. James Houston said.

Rocket and mortar attacks and suicide bombings at base camps in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused hundreds of casualties among United States and coalition forces.

&#8221Most of the buildings in Iraq are masonry buildings, and all of Saddam Hussein’s palaces are masonry buildings and we’ve got troops in a lot of those buildings,“ Houston said, referring to the most active theater of the global war on terrorism in recent months.

&#8221So the problem is when you set off a car bomb outside a masonry building what will happen is all the wall will come apart and all the blocks will fly into a room and kill everybody.“

One advantage of the solution ERDC developed is that it can be applied on a wide scale by troops without specialized training or equipment, Houston said.

&#8221We came up with something that’s like a thin film that you put on like wallpaper on the inside of this masonry wall,“ Houston said. &#8221I don’t think you have to be that good at it, either. You roll it like wallpaper, then you take an adhesive – you use a trowel and you put an adhesive on the back side.

&#8221The net effect is that it makes the building up to 15 times stronger against blasts,“ he said.

Engineers here have also worked to confine interior damage from explosions, said Pam Kinnebrew, chief of the Survivability Engineering Branch of ERDC’s Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory.

&#8221We have a lot of troops in temporary facilities,“ Houston said, adding that dining facilities are also especially vulnerable.

Requests for such solutions were received in January 2004, Kinnebrew said. By August, materials had been identified that engineers thought would be effective in controlling fragments from explosions. Many methods were tested, including a new kind of flexible concrete panel for which ERDC now has a patent.

&#8221I was amazed because I always think of concrete as brittle,“ Houston said. &#8221It’s about a half-inch thick. After you set off the blast, the panel bends but it doesn’t crack or break.“

ERDC used its supercomputing capacity to build and test simulated blast effects on digital models of some types of at-risk buildings. Full-scale physical models of those types of buildings were also built and tested using foreign-built rockets and mortars at Army facilities in Texas and Louisiana, Kinnebrew said.

&#8221The day before Thanksgiving we were sending data back over to Iraq,“ Kinnebrew said.

The need for such information in Iraq was highlighted on Dec. 21, 2004, when a suicide bomber at a Mosul dining facility killed 22 and wounded 69 in the single event that has caused the largest loss of life of U.S. forces in the war to date, Houston said.

&#8221As a direct result of ERDC’s research, (the Corps’ Rapid Equipping Force) is fielding full overhead and compartmentalization protection for five dining facilities in Iraq,“ an article by the ERDC commander, Col. James Rowan, and Kinnebrew says.

Congress has allocated $250 million in supplemental funding to make protective additions or modifications to an additional 67 dining facilities and other critical facilities in Iraq.

Houston said compartmentalization of facilities like dining halls can cut the anticipated number of casualties in a blast by about 99 percent.

&#8221It had a dramatic effect,“ Houston said of engineers’ projections of the effect of partitions on troops’ safety in such an event.

Among other technologies ERDC has developed or put in place in support of the war is a system for more rapidly analyzing comparisons of aerial photographs where hazards like explosives may be hidden by insurgents and the creation of a Corps-wide secure communications network including its Gulf Region Division in Iraq.

And other technologies were cited in ERDC’s receiving the award. They included an innovation that has improved the efficiency of the scanning of military or former military lands for unexploded ammunition or explosives.

&#8221We were able to have a technological breakthrough by fusing a couple of different sensors together to distinguish unexploded ordnance from all the other metal that’s in an area,“ Houston said. The advance is expected to save about $50 billion in cleanup costs, Houston added.

ERDC is the Corps’ premier research and development facility, based where Waterways Experiment Station opened after the 1927 Mississippi River Flood with its mission focused on river control. It now consists of four sites with over 2,000 employees, $1.2 billion in facilities and an annual research program approaching $700 million.