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Blowing stuff up used to be a rite of passage for young Aussie kids. Once a year in June we would buy bungers, throw-downs and all sorts of gun powder-inspired products. Toys, letter boxes and anything that looked like it needed blowing up, got blown up. Children would then scientifically analyse the aftereffects of the blast – to share and compare their results with other scientifically minded kids.

Then blowing stuff up was banned and some of childhood’s fun extinguished.

It was therefore exciting for me to visit the University of Wollongong (UoW) recently to see the National Facility for Physical Blast Simulation (NFPBS). Here, you can blow things up as much as you like.

The NFPBS is the brainchild of Alex Remennikov, Professor of Structural Engineering at UoW, and has only been open for a little over a year. Prof Remennikov recognised both the need and the potential for this kind of facility about five years ago. After forming a collaboration of eight Australian universities and the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), the project won further support from the Australian Research Council.

Before the NFPBS there was no way for researchers, industry, government or the military to conduct highly-controlled blast experiments at much lower cost, greater safety and higher fidelity than field trials. The facility enables researchers to better understand blast behaviour, which will lead to improved security and safety of infrastructure.

It is the largest blast facility of its kind in the world at 3,000 square metres; the only other like it is currently at the US Army Protective Design Centre in Omaha, and is not accessible to the public, to industry, or to universities.

The primary application of the facility is for the protection of critical infrastructure and elements of critical infrastructure. By its design the facility is suitable for testing scale models of infrastructure facilities such as bridges, buildings, and dams. This is made possible because the shape of the blast simulator is designed in such a way that the shock wave is transitioned or shaped in a special configuration that very closely resembles shock waves produced by explosive charges in the field. It enables replication of all key parts of the shock waves – the shock, peak pressure, expansion or the positive phase, and then followed by the negative phase or suction phase.

“The facility can achieve nearly 100 per cent repeatability of blast loads,” Prof Remennikov said.

The facility is also flexible, enabling ‘behind the wall effects’ to be conducted and studied. For example, studying the effects of an explosion behind walls or windows can provide valuable lifesaving data for designers and manufacturers.

It is here that Prof Remennikov is approaching industry to encourage use of the facility to test blast resistant applications, in particular elements of facades – windows, doors, and walls. In the past this would have required many weeks of preparation and testing somewhere in the field. NFPBS can do this type of (controlled) testing within just a couple of days. For example, most recently the NFPBS was used to test blast resistant windows for a Singaporean company that provides blast resistant doors for civil defence shelters in Singapore.

International Recognition

The International Symposium on Military Aspects of Blast and Shock (MABS) is the global peak body for the industry. It is primarily dominated by NATO countries and for Australia to win a position on the executive committee is significant. It was from this position that Prof Remennikov and his team presented the Australian bid at the MABS Conference in the Netherlands in 2018.

They won. For the first time ever, the 26th International MABS Conference will be held in Wollongong, with the NFPBS being showcased, via live testing, to all international partners. Participation is expected from the US Department of Defense (Army, Navy) and Homeland Security, along with many European countries.

It turns out that blowing stuff up is not just fun, but also crucial for designing safe and dependable infrastructure. The NFPBS enables world leading research and development to occur in Australia, and drive innovation of new products.

Note: This article was published by Australian Defence Magazine online and in hard copy in ‘ADM’s Defence Week Premium Edition’. Lincoln Parker works for the NSW Defence Innovation Network (an initiative of the NSW Government, Defence Science & Technology Group and seven NSW universities). The author’s views are his own.