Explosives on a chip

There are computers on a chip and labs on a chip and now explosives on a chip. Explosives on a chip? WTF?

This wonderful tech breakthrough is brought to us by Georgia Tech Research Institute and reported, straight-faced, by the Press Release service, Science Daily:

Developed by a team of scientists from the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, the highly-uniform copper structures will be incorporated into integrated circuits -- then chemically converted to millimeter-diameter explosives. Because they can be integrated into standard microelectronics fabrication processes, the copper materials will enable micro-electromechanical (MEMS) fuzes for military munitions to be mass-produced like computer chips.

"An ability to tailor the porosity and structural integrity of the explosive precursor material is a combination we've never had before," said Jason Nadler, a GTRI research engineer. "We can start with the Navy's requirements for the material and design structures that are able to meet those requirements. We can have an integrated design tool able to develop a whole range of explosive precursors on different size scales." (Science Daily)

This is wonderful. Just fucking wonderful. A tiny device that controls when munitions will explode. Just what we need:

The research will lead to a detonator with enhanced capabilities. "The long-term goal of the MEMS Fuze program is to produce a low-cost, highly-reliable detonator with built-in safe and arm capabilities in an extremely small package that would allow the smallest weapons in the Navy to be as safe and reliable as the largest," Beggans explained.


"Today, everything is becoming smaller, consuming less power and offering more functionality," Beggans added. "When you hear that a weapon is 'smart,' it's really all about the fuze. The fuze is 'smart' in that it knows the exact environment that the weapon needs to be in, and detonates it at the right time. The MEMS fuze would provide 'smart' functionality in medium-caliber and sub-munitions, improving results and reducing collateral damage."


"Practical implementation of this technology will enable the military to reduce the quantity of sensitive primary explosives in each weapon by at least two orders of magnitude," said Gerald R. Laib, senior explosives applications scientist at Indian Head and inventor of the MEMS Fuze concept.


The next step will be for Indian Head to integrate all the components of the fuze into the smallest possible package -- and then begin producing the device in large quantities.

This is obviously very complicated and sophisticated work. Not something a terrorist could ever do. Unless someone, like Georgia Tech Research Institute is kind enough to do it for him. And now they will be able to produce it cheaply by the thousands. And I'm sure none of those thousands of tiny detonators will ever go astray or get into the wrong hands. You're sure, too. Aren't you?

We are all so much safer. Explosives on a chip.

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I dont know that we arent from this Revere. The going price of a DNX detonator is about 1500 USD in Baghdad. We produce hundreds of thousands of them as do the French, Germans, Brits, Italians each year for commercial explosives.

This makes us MUCH safer if we can mass produce them and get the other manufacturers to do the same. Hows this? A blasting cap with a serial code on it that requires the right code to be input before it goes off. No, you wouldnt be able to tamper with it because if you did you likely would get to see just how unstable they really are. Fulminate of Mercury is about the most furious substance on this planet short of nuclear fusion bombs. Using this properly it could be put onto nukes to safeguard them from terrorist use and even on IED's. The market would be bare for them to steal them because without that code, its not going to go off....

Its a good idea as far as I am concerned.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 24 Dec 2007 #permalink

Let's set aside whether or not we should be fighting wars; that question is for a different discussion.

Why would we want advanced fusing mechanisms?

Assume the following situation. The good guys are in a city, pinned down in a relatively open area by small arms fire from the bad guys. The bad guys are in a secure building just plinking away at our guys, killing one every few minutes and without help, they're all gonna die.

Enter an attack aircraft to provide something called close air support. It's job is to kill the bad guys and save our guys.

The weapon they intend to use is a 1000 lb bomb. Bombs can be set to detonate in different ways; on contact, or after a programmed delay. If the bomb goes of on contact, it'll take out the bad guy's building and the orphanage next door. If it goes off after a few millisecond delay, it'll just take out the one building and leave little to no damage at the orphanage.

Hmmmmmm.... what to do???

Good, reliable fuses save lives. They also save money - drop one bomb and have it go off in a way that does the job and you don't need a 2nd bomb.

If you can make fuses cheaper, smaller, and more reliable, you have the option to move them from just large munitions (1000 lb bombs) down to smaller munitions like mortars and possible explosive bullets.

I don't know about you, but when my kid drops a bomb, I want it to do the job needed and nothing else and I know he does too. I'm all for better tech.

MRK: if they are in fact used for that. You know the story about Permissive Action Locks on nukes -- the combination was set to all zeroes for years. The disappearance of tons (literally) of high explosive in Iraq also makes you wonder. The release mostly seems to be about making sure weapons go off right at their targets: smart detonators getting cheaper and smaller.

Still, the need to keep our munitions from becoming their munitions is pretty tangible, and the press release does refer to "safety," so you could be right.

About tamper resistance, I'm far far far from an explosives expert, but do you need a weapon's original detonator to use a its explosive power in an IED? Maybe the answer is "heck yes" -- just seems like a reasonably thing to ask.

Finally, I gotta wonder what else this research money could have accomplished -- apparently $40 billion, or 61% of the federal research budget, goes to defense.

Enjoy the time off from work, y'all. :)

Every good idea gets ripped off by idiots who think they can use it to take stuff that is not theirs.

Good ideas and idiots are both inescapable products of human existence.

Whining does no good against this unfortunate confluence, in fact it undermines confidence.

Would you like an artillery shell that detonates within a five-second window or one that does so within a 0.005 second window?

Would you like your phone bill rounded up to the next minute, or the next second?

Would you like a camera that could take exposures as short as one half second, or one that could take exposures as short as one the thousandth?

Can we all agree that better timing and better accuracy and a more surgical approach to the art of destruction lessens unnecessary destruction?

And Merry Christmas.

E Pluribus Unum

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 24 Dec 2007 #permalink

Doug: sure, small smart bombs have military value. For almost any defensive or offensive innovation, there's a situation where it will save someone's life.

On an intuitive level, I think the question driving Revere is: why do we treat it as such a priority to produce better weapons instead of saving lives other ways? I use "instead of" advisedly -- defense costs big megabucks.

Smart 100 lb. bombs would save lives, but so would suicide counseling for returning vets, or investment in energy technology to make energy cheaper and reduce the likelihood of more Middle Eastern wars in the future. Or fighting tobacco use or diabetes, which have killed and will kill countless folks, including these same folks fighting in Iraq.

And Revere raises another good point, besides opportunity costs. If we get exploding bullets, maybe some enemy of ours will too. They could get 'em by learning about our research, or from another country that allies with or imitates us. Sure, it's speculative, but it makes you wonder whether military research makes us so much safer when we're already the world's sole superpower.

That would be "as short as one ten thousandth," but you surely knew that.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 24 Dec 2007 #permalink

I think this will be applicable to "This message will self-destruct."

Prof Jones announced on Dec 15 at the Boston Tea Party a discovery of what he believes to be chips described as red (copper?) on one side and light grey on the other side. It is said to have come from the WTC dust that is being analyzed at other labs for confirmation. On Dec 18, the news of GTRI findings was released, so he announced before GTRI news was released.

It's interesting, this research is obviously for military application and funded by government grants. Why would they release this information in this age of secrecy? The timing is also suspicous coming as it does shortly AFTER Prof Jones announcement. Of course, he could have had a source in GTRI who leaked the information to him and then he "discovered" the chip, but why would anyone leak this to him is beyond me, these guys live off government funding.


Just another one of those coincidences I guess.

Still wouldnt change the explosive value of a smart chip bomb PFT. Its an initiator, a blasting cap for all intents and purposes. If its coded and someone tries to tamper with it, well they lose a face or a hand. Do it in a box of them and you could lose a big wall. The reason the information is released is obvious and that is that it has commercial operator uses. It makes it so safe that coded at a factory, its like trying to decode a telephone so you can use a stolen one. Not so easily done, but sure possible. It makes it more difficult. All you do now is take a cap, hit it with an electrical charge and off it goes. There is no safety built in. You could stomp on one hard and it would go off.

Gladio BTW was a suggestion.... Not a mandate and typical of the EU.

So, this does make explosives from both commercial and military safer. It also takes IED's off the market for all intents and purposes. Homemade initiators are very unsafe, (12 gauge shells with electric contacts) are very, very unstable and a good wind can set them off.

R-You wonder? Well it was a part of the military budget, approved by Congress and they voted the money for it so they probably didnt wonder at all about it. They can see the value in advancements in technology because even a 200 dollar toilet seat could be used as a weapon. If you are going to be killed by a guy wielding a toilet seat, then it should be the finest one.

This is a MUCH better toilet seat.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 25 Dec 2007 #permalink

One definite benefit I can see coming from this is the ability to place redundant detonators in any size munition, in addition to the improved reliability of the detonators themselves. Most importantly, the small bomblets that make up cluster munitions could each carry two or three separate detonators on individual circuits, improving their reliability from the current 80-90% to 99.9% or higher. Since there seems to be no desire to quit using these munitions, I'd welcome any development that can at least greatly reduce the unexploded ordnance they leave behind and the resulting civilian casualties.

One point I was trying to make is that these detonators are non-sectarian. They can be used by either side. But terrorists cannot invent and make them. They depend on us to do it for them. So we are having an arms race with ourselves. Profitable but not security enhancing.

Revere-maybe you didnt get the total idea behind these things. If they can program them with an EProm chip with even say a 8 pair base code they might be able to figure out a single one in about two or three days. They could also program them to go off in their faces if they plug an EProm reader into the thing. So it might just LIMIT the number of collaterals, and they might actually be able to time limit land mines, bombs, nukes whatever so that even if they fall into the wrong hands they cant be used.

Then there are conventional weapons. We could use weapons that deprive continually a foreign power from use of a runway by using penetrators that go off periodically after they have been shot. Its another way to take away the capabilities of an enemy and then when the war is over, send a master code via a transmitter either handheld or to the EOD people to disarm all the weapons deployed.... No kid gets killed post of the war playing with a 500 pounder .

Terrorists and bad guys? They could figure them out but its not going to be cost effective for them to do it. Easier to buy from the Ruskies or Chinese.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 25 Dec 2007 #permalink

Doug gives his example why "smart" bombs are so good. I think you need to consider the human factor. In reality wars are always going to be brutal, messy affairs, but the illusion of "smart" weapons lower the threshold. It makes it easier for politicians and generals to believe that going to war is a good idea, that a surgical strike can wipe out a perceived enemy with little risk. Unfortunately, while weapons are getting smarter, humans are just as stupid and ignorant as ever.

Take the attack on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. It was militarily a stunning success as the factory was wiped out and only one person was killed. However, the evidence that it was involved in production of chemical weapons seems to have been wrong or even fabricated, and the long time consequences of destroying the largest pharmaceutical factory in a poor country devastating. Without access to smart weapons, maybe Clinton would have thought twice about performing such an act of terrorism?

Yep, Thomas nails that little Clinton problem to the tree. Who in Hell attacks a chemical munitions plant in a population center with 380,000 people in it? A really dumb President and an even dumber Maddy "Kill them All" aint so bright, Albright.

Revere nails me for my kill them all suggestions at timed. But this one took the cake. Me I like smart bombs. Keeps the yield in collaterals down.... But it is time to put one up on WJC for that one. Indeed a 500 pd warhead had there been any chemicals such as sarin, tabun, vx being manufactured would have laid waste to the town of Khartoum in the Sudan and it would have poisoned the soil and water for some time to come. Remember the skinny fireman in a pair of shorts with the inch and a half hose putting the fire out?

That attack was blamed on "faulty" intelligence and cost the US 50 million. Sure looked good in the press though. When that didnt work we went to Kosovo. Clinton didnt get an approval from Congress for either.

But the point is that smart weapon technology is coming. Biometric bombing is also on the horizon. Picture a satellite that is able by remote sensing to pick up an enemy's heartbeat, body temp and even how they walk, in regimental or divisional strength. Ten minutes later a B-1 or B-2 or pulse jet at high altitude drops a SLAM that has been programmed with smart bullets that are on parachutes or micro balloons. It orbits on its jet engine until it "sees" the target, the warhead opens and instantly a thousand or so rocket motors kick in, driving to the kill. One shot one kill has been the aim of every munitions maker for almost 150 years. Total accuracy and limited directed use of your weapons makes war almost obsolete. Indeed if anything this will ensure that it does finally stop. We and the EU would be the only ones that could field this technology and make it work.

It would be so costly to interdict such a weapon that it would bankrupt a country. You saw that in the B2 technology when a certain aircraft flew completely undetected across Russia and I ain't talking about a Cessna 172. The Ruskies had to give it up or face limited and directed use of the new weapon against them. Wouldnt have even been able to get them out of their silo's before we tagged them with conventional weapons. If they fired them all we would have had to have done would have been to drop tactical nukes in their lift windows and totaled their rocket capability. Not to mention their communications.

Yep, I like this stuff.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 26 Dec 2007 #permalink

... the doomsday machine is triggered automatically,
and at the same time impossible to untrigger ...

Randolph, you got it backwards. Sudan was at the time suspected of making chemical weapons, not sarin but much simpler mustard gas. However, the real suspect facilities were in downtown Khartoum and bombing them would have led to the disaster you describe, so instead a factory that was a bit more isolated was targeted. Who would know or care? Sudan was internationally isolated at the time.

As for your "make war obsolete", how many times have that been said throughout history as people have invented weapons so dangerous that wars with them would be unthinkable? Your description of how Russia "gave up" seems ludicrous. There is no way you could stop them from launching enough missiles to trash your country, and any belief to the contrary is dangerously crazy. Missile defenses don't work, and nuclear submarines would defeat your scheme anyway.

What USA has proved is that they can bomb any fixed facility on Earth, but are helpless when it comes to occupying a country. Modern weapons are of limited use if you can't identify the enemy fighters, unless you are willing to switch to genocide. (OK, one million dead in Iraq after the war isn't that far from genocide, even if only a couple of hundred thousand have been killed directly by US forces).

I know that as a leader of a smaller country faced with the kind of scenario you describe with EU and USA being able to target anyone anywhere and willing to do it, I'd get nukes, plenty of them, well hidden, to distribute by ship, civilian aircraft or any other mode of transport in case my country was attacked. It would be the only way to get some sort of safety. So much for war being unthinkable.

Actually I see this as a good development that will increase safety. The largest increase wont be in explosives, but rather in ammunition. Going to electronic firing instead of mechanical will make electronic permissive control much easier and more robust. Ammunition will use smaller amounts of toxic heavy metals, there will be fewer misfires, guns will be simpler and cheaper, with fewer moving parts to wear and corrode. There will be absolute traceability of ammunition. It would not be difficult to program each round so it could only be fired in a single weapon. If only programmed ammunition worked in each weapon, and if programming the ammunition required the presence of the weapon and a connection to the internet, programming of ammunition could be limited to only legal weapons.

Once there is electronic control of round firing, the gun could record the time, location and direction of gun aiming (via GPS) of each round that is fired and report that back the next time ammunition is programmed. It could be recorded in the chip on the spent shell casing too.

This technology could make guns a lot safer.

The problem would be enforcement, but if insurance companies gave discounts for liability insurance for the new guns (which would actually reflect their reduced liability), the safer guns would likely have a lot lower cost of ownership.

MRK -- the fact that detonator chips are more militarily effective than $200 toilet seats doesn't say much. This may not be the single dumbest way the U.S. spends money, but as long as it's not the right way to spend it, we're totally right to complain.

Anyway, some unaddressed points -- some repeated from above, a couple new.

1. From the press release, it looks like the main goal is to make bombs to go off right at their targets, not to prevent terrorists from using stolen bombs.

2. If we *did* try to use this to prevent the use of stolen bombs, it's not clear it would make much difference. Terrorists' main weapons are IEDs, and they can probably set off the high explosive charges in our weapons without hacking our fancy detonator.

3. Doug notes that good fuses can save lives, but they save far fewer lives than we could potentially save by diverting funds to civilian basic research, health care, or [insert your favorite starved program here].

4. As Revere noted more clearly than I, as the world's only superpower we're in an arms race only with ourselves; our technology can be used against us.

Corollary: as the world's only superpower, we don't need to spend so much just to be secure. During the Cold War, maybe you could argue that newer weapons are coming one way or another, and we have to invest greatly in research or be left behind. But today we massively outspend our potential rivals; we're not going to get left behind even if we cut back a bunch.

5. MRK says that smarter weapons will make war practically obsolete. Not so. They'll make some military objectives easier to accomplish, like taking Baghdad or killing Zarqawi once we've found him. These weapons wouldn't save us from the problem of fixing Iraq now that we've broken it, and better weapons wouldn't identify terrorists for us (or slow down recruitment!).

Smarter guns are better than bigger guns. But smart foreign policy and less oil dependence would do a lot more to prevent war than satellite-based weapons. And many, many things would save more lives for the dollar than explosives on a chip.