A device that shoots a blade of water capable of penetrating steel is headed to U.S. troops in Afghanistan to help them disable deadly Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs—the No. 1 killer and threat to troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories developed the device and have licensed the patent-pending technology to TEAM Technologies Inc., a small minority-owned business near the lab in Albuquerque, NM. The company made its first shipment of about 3,000 new water disruptors to Afghanistan this summer.
Sandia National Laboratories is operated by Sandia Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
‘Very Precise Water Blade’
“The fluid blade disablement tool will be extremely useful to defeat IEDs because it penetrates the IED extremely effectively,” said Greg Scharrer, manager of the Energetic Systems Research Department at Sandia. “It’s like having a much stronger and much sharper knife.”
The portable clear plastic device is filled with water, and an explosive material is placed in it. When detonated, the explosive creates a shock wave that travels through the water and accelerates it inward into a concave opening, said Steve Todd, one of the three principal inventors of the device. When the water collides, it produces a thin blade.
“That allows you to have a high-speed, very precise water blade to go through and do precision type of destruction on whatever Improvised Explosive Device it’s going up against,” Todd said.
“Immediately behind the precision water blade is a water slug, which performs a general disruption that tears everything apart.”
Development and Field Testing
The tool was invented by Todd, a mechanical and materials engineer with extensive Navy experience fighting IEDs; Chance Hughs, a retired Navy SEAL explosives expert on contract to Sandia; and mechanical engineer Juan Carlos Jakaboski, in Sandia’s Energetic Systems Research Department for an NNSA sponsor.
Soldiers rotating out of Afghanistan and Iraq worked hand-in-hand with researchers and developers to test the device for several months in the New Mexico desert.
TEAM Technologies improved the tool based on the soldiers’ input after it was exposed to dust, water and banging around by the troops, said program manager Paul Reynolds. The improvements included providing a better seal and redesigning the water plug so it was easier to insert.
“The soldiers helped on the design to make it more ruggedized and small enough,” Todd said. “It was a very good collaboration.”
Unlike traditional explosives, which release energy equally in all directions when they go off, researchers use shaped-charge technology to deliberately manipulate the explosives so that they create a certain shape when they explode, allowing the operator to focus the energy precisely where it’s needed.
The inventors of the fluid blade disablement tool took a different tack. Rather than changing the shape of the explosive, Todd, Hughs and Jakaboski used an explosive modeling tool to figure out how to change the shape of the water when designing the water disruptors.
“We’re putting the explosive in a flat tray, and we’re shaping the water,” Scharrer said.
The process happens in microseconds and can’t be captured by the human eye, so researchers used computer simulation and high-speed flash X-rays, which can view the interior of imploding high-explosive devices and record the motion of materials moving at ultrahigh speeds, to fine-tune the design.
Potential Security Applications
TEAM Technologies is a small business of 75 employees based in the Sandia Science & Technology Park adjacent to the Sandia laboratory.
The company’s first priority is to get the device to troops in Afghanistan but the device may also eventually be sold to law enforcement and airport security agencies. It also could be used for forced entry into buildings.
“We saw the opportunity to move into a product line, and we jumped on it,” said TEAM Technologies president and CEO Bob Sachs. “We’re very excited about it. We see it as a whole product line.”
The tool can be placed almost in contact with the target or a distance away without losing its effectiveness, Reynolds said. It uses minimal explosive material, its plastic legs can be attached in various configurations so that it can be placed in different positions to disable bombs, and it’s built so that robots can easily place it near a target, he said.
“This is a giant leap forward in technology,” Reynolds said.
Those researching and developing the fluid blade disablement tool said they felt a sense of urgency to get it into the hands of soldiers as they read nearly daily media reports about deaths of U.S. troops from IED attacks.
“When I look back on how this all took place, the thing that comes through to me was that people were motivated to get a lifesaving technology onto the battlefield,” Reynolds said. “This is a lifesaving technology.”
Pentagon officials have reported significant increases in roadside bombs this year in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Click here to view video footage of the water disruptor.