Smash! Bang! Whoopee!

  • An explosion rips through a 747 jet during a Smash Lab test of a new material called Blastwrap.
  • Could giant airbags mounted on the train protect a vehicle in a level crossing accident?
Date:31 August 2008 Tags:, , , , ,

Applying everyday technologies in ways their inventors could never have imagined, the Discovery Channel’s Smash Lab team give destruction a good name.

Could bulletproof Kevlar protect an airliner from bombs? Can a car airbag be reinvented to stop a helicopter from sinking after it crashes into the sea? Is there a fabric that can protect a mobile home from the awesome power of a hurricane?

Kicking off on DStv this month, a new Discovery Channel series – with the deliciously appropriate title, Smash Lab – introduces a team of maverick engineers who don’t play by the rules. In essence, they break down everyday technology to see how it works, then use their knowhow to explore its potential uses in a different, supersized way.

Filming at a dedicated facility in California, the team put their plans to the test and capture them from every camera angle imaginable, creating a visual feast of fireballs, explosions, crashes, collapses, collisions and impacts. Their reasoning is both simple and compelling: sometimes, destruction is good for you.

Like most normal people, the Smash Lab team enjoy blowing up stuff –and that includes their tame scientist, Deanne Bell, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering. Her work experience ranges from designing FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) and LADAR optical navigation systems for the aerospace industry to product development for a CAD software start-up. In other words, she’s pretty smart.

Deanne is passionate about her work with the next generation of scientists and engineers, having previously hosted Design Squad, an educational show for teens. When she’s not analysing the destruction at Smash Lab, she seeks out global travel and outdoor adventure. She has hiked to the base of Mount Everest, cycled from Seattle to Los Angeles, and backpacked solo through Asia.

Nick Blair is the team’s designer. He’s designed medical devices, consumer electronics, houseware, furniture, and more recently, wild experiments that end in destruction (hey, he’s a man). The third male in the team, Kevin Cook, is billed as

“The Ideas Guy”. Imaginative, creative, and a lateral thinker par excellence, he’s also the team’s resident prankster.

And finally, there’s Chuck Messer, an engineer who knows all about technology for the betterment of humanity. He’s designed surgical tools for robotically assisted heart surgery, and prosthetics for use around the world. He’s also chairman of the Shared Design Alliance, an organisation that supports and promotes the free sharing of design work for public benefit, and a founder of the Open Prosthetics Project, focusing on the design and development of prosthetics and free sharing of the work with the public. Adept at engineering tricky concepts and developing and prototyping technology, Chuck follows a job from the drawing board to the workshop.

In one of their biggest challenges, the team attempt to repurpose a new material called Blastwrap – a mineral-filled membrane designed to soak up the energy from a bomb placed inside a rubbish bin. Could it work to protect an entire Boeing 747 airliner from an explosion?

Cue a festival of outsized fireworks as they get to grips with the problem. The team manage to find a suitably sacrificial 747, but there is one difficulty: to make the test meaningful, they’ll have to pressurise the big bird, simulating flight at 10 000 m. This wouldn’t be too difficult if the plane still had its doors, but this one doesn’t. It’s a complex challenge on a huge scale, but finally they have a sealed 747 and their finger on the fire button…

In another episode, the team face an almost impossible challenge: can they use pickup loadbed liner paint, normally used to protect vehicles from scratches and knocks, to shield an entire building from a massive explosion? First they analyse the material, called Rhino Liner, to discover its properties. Then they subject two trucks, one with the liner and one without, to an explosion to see if there’s any hope of the plan working.

After more high-intensity blasting, the team are ready to go for the big one. They paint a purpose-built building with the special material and get set to detonate a huge charge, their 5 000-frames-persecond cameras on standby to record the action microsecond by microsecond. Will the building survive, or will it crumble? There’s only one way to find out – fire in the hole!

Then there’s the level crossing episode. Although we have no statistics on level crossing accidents in South Africa, the US experiences more than its fair share – some 3 000 a year, or an average of one accident every three hours. When a 7 000- ton train hits a 2-ton car, it’s no contest; the car always loses.

Coming at the problem in their trademark off-the-wall manner, the Smash Lab team test an idea that could – in theory, anyway – save hundreds of lives. They use giant airbags mounted to a cowcatcher on the front of a train to push the car safely out of harm’s way. Once again, we get to see the action in exquisite slow-motion.

Perhaps of more interest to battlehardened South Africans is an entirely different kind of challenge: can the team use the latest aviation breakthrough to prevent a car or bus from crossing the meridian and smashing into oncoming traffic? They explore an amazing technology called an aerated concrete arrestor bed, a crumbly crushable material laid at the end of runways at 18 airports across America.

Right now, it’s used to stop a plane overshooting the runway – but what if it were laid in the central median strip on a highway, or used to make some new kind of barrier? Cue smash mayhem as the team tries out all the options. Only by crashing full-size cars at serious velocity will the truth be known.

Ultra-high speed digital video cameras reveal what happens in the blink of an eye. Will a crumbly concrete barrier do the trick? Or is a truck-and-car specific version of the airport design the way to go? Will the destruction never end? What are you, some kind of pinko pacifist?