The Kirk Engineering Lab houses the University of Rhode Island Dynamic Photomechanics Lab (DPML) that explores both explosions and underwater implosions.
The lab is led by Arun Shukla, URI professor of mechanical engineering, whose life’s work has been to discover how materials fracture under unusual circumstances. Or, in plain terms, blowing things up.
In this lab there are two different machines in which the experiments are conducted. One is a high-pressure underwater experiment facility that can simulate the effects and energy created by an implosion underwater. The other machine is called a shock tube facility, which mimics an explosion on whatever object or material is being experimented on by the professor.
Shukla and his team of students are using their experiments to find out how much energy is released during implosions and explosions.
“Also, one of the things we are interested in is [whether we can] design materials or make structures that don’t implode, or if they do implode they release less energy,” Shukla said.
Nicholas DeNardo, graduate student working in the DPML, joined the lab because of his interest with the professor and the particular area of implosion.
“We’re performing fundamental physical research,” DeNardo said. His most recent experiment involves studying the implosion of sandwich cylinders, which has a similar structure as to that of a submarine.
The lab has done extensive work in discovering different composite material that will react better and safer under harsh circumstances both in air and underwater. According to Shukla, these composites are made of “carbon fibers, or glass fibers, or combinations of these.”
“It’s possible that you put [structures like pipelines and oil platforms] underwater and they are safe and sound,” Shukla said. “But if an accident happens somewhere or somebody explodes a bomb somewhere at a distance, all that energy from the explosion can come and hit the structure also so all the water and superimposed by this extra energy can cause it to implode.”
Part of the lab’s experimental techniques includes using high speed photography to document the effects of the experiments. Some of these cameras can take up to a million pictures in one second, the best way to observe each moment of an explosion or implosion, according to Shukla.
The lab also applies these cameras to create three-dimensional imagery of the experiments, allowing the scientists to see the experiment in real time. With this technology they are able to get quantifiable data that they can use to better design structures and materials that can be used out in the field. These quantified measurements include displacements and particle velocities, something that a typical camera would not be able to pick up on.
“The technique that we are using here is unique because we are applying it for underwater,” Shukla said. “There are places that can take pictures but they cannot get this information.”
The lab’s funding comes from multiple sources, including the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Office of Scientific Research, the Department of Homeland Security and the bulk of which comes from the National Science Foundation.
“We want to make the world better and safer place to live,” Shukla said. “So we give our findings to the Navy and to the Air Force.”
Since its establishment in 1981, the DPML has been publishing its findings in multiple scientific journals including “International Journal of Solids and Structures,” “Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids,” “Materials Science and Engineering,” “Journal of Composite Materials” and “Journal of Pressure Vessel Technology.” Shukla and his lab has most recently been featured on “Motherboard,” an online magazine and video channel dedicated to discovering new technology and science that is shaping the future of the world.
“We were able to design a glass that although it shatters, it stays in one piece,” Shukla said about one of the labs more recent discoveries. “And then we were able to design a very strong ship hull material from a composite material.”
There have been some spectacular implosions deep in the ocean, including submarines, unmanned robots that the Navy uses for exploration, and oil tanks. The research that the DPML is conducting is to help ensure that a lot of these implosions and disasters will not happen in the future.