A new world class laboratory that is set to develop an unprecedented insight into the behaviour of explosives – data which could help to improve the UK’s ability to protect against terrorist attacks – is being launched by engineers at the University of Sheffield.

The first of its kind facility, led by Dr Sam Clarke from the University’s Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, could help academia and industry to better optimise materials that are capable of resisting or mitigating the effects of explosions.

Thanks to £1.3 million of government funding as part of the World Class Labs initiative announced today (6 January 2021), the Sheffield researchers are building a new laboratory that will provide a safe environment in which explosive, fragment and ballistic tests can be conducted whilst allowing the highest possible spectrum of data to be collected.

The data could inform ways to protect critical infrastructure and urban environments, such as buildings and vehicles, against explosive threats.

Most experimental research on the impact of blasts uses highly simplified geometric scenarios. However, as real-world explosions often occur in more complex settings, such as densely populated cities and urban areas, there is a need to better understand how explosives interact with, and their effects are influenced by, the materials and structures that surround them. This includes the detonation products and resulting fragments produced by an explosion that pose a major risk to life.

The laboratory at Sheffield will be able to deliver this crucial insight using a new reinforced concrete blast chamber, capable of withstanding a 1kg explosive internal blast. The chamber will allow the deployment of a protected blast diagnostic system, consisting of dual ultra-high-speed cameras for digital image correlation of structural responses to explosions, a high-speed mid-wave infrared camera for analysing the temperature and spectroscopy of explosions, and four-channel flash x-ray for internal diagnostics of how materials respond to blasts.

A separate fragment launcher will also be able to fire projectiles into the chamber, enabling ballistic interactions with structures and materials to be studied in isolation of the blast where necessary.

The testing facility will be able to fully quantify how an explosive interacts with its immediate confining materials and structures, which could be used to develop methods for mitigating and reducing the impact generated from explosives through the intelligent application of materials.

The Sheffield group will feed the new insights through to academic and industrial partners who have a wealth of experience in designing blast protective systems, in order to optimise blast-resistant materials.

The laboratory will also be capable of testing the impact that explosives can have on cities under various scenarios, which will provide crucial data for engineering models that inform risk assessments for high-risk infrastructure projects.

Dr Sam Clarke, Senior Lecturer in Geotechnical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said: “The grant provides a step-change in our capabilities to investigate the region very close to an explosive detonation. The combination of ultra-high speed cameras, thermal imaging and flash x-ray diagnostics, combined with our current capabilities in load characterisation will give us a unique capability to push forward research into protecting people from devastating blast effects.”