The University of Sheffield and its spin-out, Blastech, has developed a new weapon in the fight against terrorism. Or should that be shield?
The team of researchers have invented a bomb proof lightweight membrane for aircraft holds that is just 1.3mm thick. This wonder-material is designed to withstand explosive shockwaves of 20,000 miles per hour and temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius.
This invention could prevent attacks like Lockerbie bombing as the lining will absorb force, heat and shrapnel, stretching to absorb the blast. The likelihood of the plane escaping entirely unharmed is uncertain at this point but researchers are confident that the lining will ultimately save the plane and its passengers.
Tests on the lining that is made from layers of high strength, high resistance fabrics, have been carried out at Cotswold Airport using a Boeing 747 and an Airbus A321 with increasingly powerful explosive charges. Kevlar threads are woven throughout the material and the entire sheet is coated with thickening fluids which get thicker when exposed to impact or explosive shockwaves. This effectively dissipates the kinetic energy across the lining.
Explosive test without the Fly Bag lining - Image courtesy of Sheffield University
Dubbed Fly-Bag by the team, the key concept behind the innovation was to develop a defence against smuggled explosives that absorbed rather than contained explosions. A rigid wall like a bunker can only absorb so much before it is compromised and buckles. Equally the overpressure caused by a blast would act like a rocket if the outer hull was breached and be enough to flip a plan on to its back. Assuming the plane wasn't already critically compromised, such a violent roll could cause loss of control. The Fly-Bag will prevent that from happening.
Although the material has been tested already in isolation, the live fire tests have helped the researchers understand how Fly-Bag might work in the conditions it is intended for; previous trials had shown it expands when something explodes inside it, but the team needed to be certain the lining itself wouldn’t damage the plane as it expands under force. Research Director, Andy Tyas, of the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering at Sheffield commented that results were ‘very promising’.
The intention is to ultimately replace the heavy, hardened, luggage containers currently used on commercial flights with a cheaper, lighter, more flexible alternative that will be available in three different sizes:
The first would be a lining that runs the length and width of the entire luggage compartment, intended for narrow bodied jets. The second would be a version designed for luggage crates stored on wide bodied commercial planes. The third, which is perhaps the most ingenious, is a pouch carried in the main passenger compartment that flight crews can use to isolate a suspicious object or item of hang-luggage.
The military applications are also significant. The material could be used in uniforms, effectively acting as a form of ballistic clothing particularly around key locations such as the neck and thighs. IEDs could be quickly and safely isolated with little more than a sheet of material erected around or draped over the device. It isn’t unreasonable to assume, at this stage, that temporary shelters could be made of similar material affording soldiers greater protection in the field.
This breakthrough is likely to spark a whole never wave of innovation and industry within both the Aerospace and Defence sectors and we shall be watching with great interest as further progress in made.
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