The Lighter Side of Explosions

by James Herzing 6 April 2016

Explosions are the highlight of any large-budget action film, comedic punchline of a classic Looney Tunes cartoon, the exclamation point of a lyric in a song played live in concert, the colorful centerpiece at a fireworks display and often the epic finale of every Mythbusters episode. Beyond sheer visual spectacle, however, they are used in more practical applications like powering our vehicles, projecting missiles or even being used as a “pyro” - a small guillotine-type mechanism used in deploying solar panel arrays on satellites.

So what is it about explosions that are so compelling?


On a pure primal level, there is something to understanding how to “play with fire” and not get burned.  Somewhere in the years that make up human existence, someone said, “What if we learn to master this?”, and then, “If we did learn to master this, what can we use it for to make life better?”

“What if we could understand and recreate miniature versions of the big bang (repeatedly, reliably and safely) and how does that elevate us as a society?”

These inspiring questions lead to the desire to better understand the nature of combustion and its benefits. Furthermore, it took inspired individuals like Newton, Joule, Thomson (Kelvin) and many others to comprehend the implications and develop the science and mathematical framework by which we can predict the behavior of combustion.  Keep in mind that quite often, these individuals had to fight against overcoming the status quo of outdated opinions at the time, but in the end, their hard work became commonly-accepted methodologies today.

And with this framework in place, engineers all over the world have the means to design the tools, mechanisms, structures and materials to harness the rapid expansion of exothermic energy into usable energy.  Through a myriad of computer-aided design tools, we can now design such systems better, faster and cheaper than ever before, knowing how to estimate the extreme temperatures, pressures and forces that will be generated.


And, of course, if we can design it, we can rapidly improve upon our designs through simulation as well by applying the standard practices of FEACFD and material optimization, not to mention the Dynamic Design Analysis Method (DDAM), specifically developed by the U.S. Navy to model a vessel’s response to underwater explosions.  No matter where in the design process we are, modeling and simulation allow us to better ensure cost-effective reliability and safety.

In the end, explosions are awesome sights and sounds to behold as well as being very useful.  There is a reason for this:  over several years we have come to understand combustion and how it works, and therefore, have developed the technology to put it to good use - one need only consider the number of explosions we are exposed to every day when we take our cars, motorcycles or even lawn mowers out for a spin!  Collectively, we have taken something dangerous and potentially life-threatening and learned to control it.  That is not to say that mistakes aren’t made anymore, but we continue to innovate better ways to reduce the hazards while providing both useful power and a visual delight for children of all ages.