Phillip Mulligan is trying to make improvised explosive devices more powerful with the idea of eventually making them less deadly.
A graduate student at Missouri University of Science and Technology, Mulligan is researching IEDs in order to gain knowledge about ways to improve blast-resistant armor.
“We are trying to create the best device we can, so we can learn how to develop the best armor possible,” Mulligan says.
Missouri S&T offers the only explosives engineering minor in the country, and the university is in the process of getting approval for a master’s degree in the field.
Out at a small quarry on campus property, Mulligan is holding a box full of IEDs that he made. For security reasons, he won’t let anyone take photos of the small bombs or video them, but he’s happy to talk about his research.
Mulligan’s IEDs are made of PVC, copper and, of course, explosives. When detonated, the copper plate explodes into shrapnel that flies everywhere. The main slug, though, travels at 6,000 feet per second in a pre-determined direction.
The objective here is to shoot the main slug at an 1,800-pound, three-inch-thick sheet of steel that Mulligan has placed 20 feet away from the IED.
By way of demonstration, Mulligan ties one of his IEDs to three wires that suspend it in the air in front of the target. Then he instructs onlookers to take cover with him behind a protective barrier about 200 feet away. Everybody is wearing safety helmets and ear plugs.
Mulligan shouts “Fire in the hole!” three times. And then a terrifying explosion occurs. Those behind the barricade wait for tiny pieces of hot copper to stop raining from the sky before returning to the blast site.
The IED is gone; there’s nothing left of it. The copper shrapnel on the ground around the site is larger than the small pieces that were falling from the sky near the shelter. “This is something we want to study,” Mulligan says. “How big is the shrapnel and why? We need to see how it behaves.”
But Mulligan is most interested in the sheet of steel, which now features an ugly indention the size of a fist. “This would have cut a person in half,” he says.
As part of the research, Mulligan is using high-speed cameras to capture the explosions. One of the cameras, which is protected by a panel of special glass, shoots 10,000 frames per second. The images can be used to determine the speed and behavior of projectiles.
Mulligan re-states that the ultimate goal is to develop new lightweight armor that can protect against powerful IEDs. But, first, he needs to know just how powerful the little bombs can be and what kind of damage they can do. And that’s why he’s making his own.
Mulligan’s research advisor is Dr. Jason Baird, an explosives expert who is an associate professor of mining engineering at Missouri S&T.
“We are trying to perfect our version of the explosive device,” Mulligan says.