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MIT Team Helps Disarm Bombs

By Bryan Bender

The Pentagon is staking $3 million on a small team of students at the MIT to help the military identify new ways of disarming the kind of homemade bombs that insurgents are using to kill and maim U.S. troops in Iraq, according to Defense Department documents and researchers.

Under the auspices of the Office of Naval Research, the Pentagon will fund a research project led by MIT chemistry professor Keith A. Nelson that is analyzing the molecular interaction of explosive materials. The goal of the three-year program, Nelson said, is to study the physics and chemistry of improvised explosive devices — known as IEDs — and find techniques to detonate or short-circuit them before they cause harm.

“We are studying the microscopic mechanisms that are characteristic of the core materials that bad guys use in IEDS,” Nelson said in an interview Monday. “There is a whole set of things that have to happen to get [a detonation] and we are studying the chemistry in small amounts of energetic materials.

“There are two objectives: developing countermeasures and developing safer and more reliable materials for our own use” to defend against them, he said.

The Defense Department believes the highly controlled experiments that 10 MIT researchers are conducting with research partners at Washington State University and Michigan Technological University hold great promise.

The funding is part of a military program called the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, which is designed to support technology advances and academic work in subjects “representing exceptional opportunities” for future military applications, according to a program description.

Composed of leftover Iraqi Army mortars, artillery shells, TNT, and a variety of other explosives available in postwar Iraq, IEDs pose perhaps the most troublesome problem for U.S. troops and commanders. The bombs, hidden along U.S. patrol and convoy routes, are relatively cheap to make, yet have become increasingly sophisticated, more powerful, and harder for the military to defend against.

Skilled insurgents have disguised IEDs as rocks or tucked them inside roadside debris and dead animals. The bomb detonators have ranged from remote-controlled devices activated by a nearby cellphone to thin, nearly invisible trip wires and sensors the size of postage stamps imbedded in the road.

The Defense Department has set aside $3 billion this year to develop new technologies and training techniques to help thwart what has become the single deadliest weapon US soldiers face in Iraq.

And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld established a high-level office headed by a retired general to coordinate the military’s projects addressing the IED problem.

According to an Army report to Congress earlier this month, the Pentagon’s work on roadside bombs “has contributed to a 45 percent decrease in the rate of IED casualties since April 2004.”

Yet the military has a long way to go before the weapon of choice of Iraqi insurgents and others targeting American forces is rendered a tolerable threat, according to specialists.

With the help of Washington State’s Institute for Shock Physics, which studies the physical and chemical changes in solids and liquids under very rapid and large compressions, the MIT research work will include laboratory experiments to “shock materials and study in real time how they respond,” Nelson said.

Other research will include testing different ways that explosives can be stimulated, or triggered — such as through heat, radiation, or mechanics.

The hope, said Nelson, is to use the knowledge gained to “make IEDs on the side of the road more vulnerable to stimuli we might launch at them.”