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Improving Homeland Security

In the aftermath of 9/11, the American government has become acutely aware of both national security risks and the steps required to reduce those risks to a minimum. Airliners—with their capacity to protect precious human cargo matched by an equal capacity to become devastating weapons—are of special interest to the Department of Homeland Security.  

homeland security

The DHS has invested in research to upgrade airline safety measures, and Professor Roger Veldman of Hope College’s Engineering Department has been involved in this pursuit for the past several years. 

Dr. Veldman is investigating how blast-mitigating materials might dampen the effect of an on-board aircraft explosion. Each summer, he and a team of Hope students conduct research on and off-campus to determine the best design and use of a variety of these materials.  They have found an aluminum honeycomb composite to be particularly valuable: it can absorb energy inflicted by a blast and reduce stress on the aircraft’s skin, making the chances of a dangerous puncture less likely. 

Student researcher Zachary Hoernschemeyer ’09 elaborated on the team’s work during the summer of 2007.  “We focused on defeating an explosive blast that would potentially occur very close to the fuselage.  In the past it has been extremely difficult to defeat an onboard explosion due to the energy released and the structural make-up of an aircraft. However, in light of recent advances in the materials field, we were able to make some astounding advances.” 

The 2007 team tested a fiber metal laminate, a laminate made from thin sheets of aluminum interspersed with glass fibers (also known as GLARE), 2024-T3 aluminum sheets, molded/woven polypropylene, a carbon fiber composite, aluminum honeycomb, Kevlar-reinforced thermoplastic elastomer, and a spray-on elastomeric coating known as Dragonshield.   

They performed tests on their materials at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH. Using a vacuum chamber to mimic the high altitude conditions of an actual on-board blast, they detonated C4 explosives six inches from each panel’s surface.  

Two material combinations passed their tests:  a panel of aluminum 2024-T3 coated with Dragonshield elastomeric, and a GLARE panel coated with Kevlar-reinforced thermoplastic elastomer.   

The team was able to conclude that while rigid panels were often unable to withstand blasts alone, coating one of their surfaces with a layer of strong yet flexible elastomer or Dragonshield allowed the panel to fracture without rupturing.   

As he considered his last summer of research, team member Mark Panaggio ’09 says, “We will build on the research from last summer by trying some new combinations of materials and trying to refine the past ones.  We need to figure out what thicknesses are necessary, and how they can be attached.   We will also try to improve our computer models so that we can better predict how new combinations will react.” 

The team hopes these experiments will save time and money and allow them to focus on finding the most promising material combinations. 

For more about Dr. Veldman’s research, please visit his homepage: http://www.hope.edu/academic/engineering2/faculty/veldman/index.html 

To read more about the Department of Homeland Security’s research initiatives, please visit it’s official site: http://www.dhs.gov/xres/