New Simulator Can Test Effects of Terrorist Bombings on Buildings

SAN DIEGO (AP) - The University of California, San Diego showed off Wednesday what it called the world's first laboratory blast simulator by slamming a seven-ton concrete column with the same force as a car bomb.

The blast simulator, built at a cost of $10 million, is the first machine of its kind that can mimic the effects of a blast without explosives. It will be used to develop ways of hardening buildings and bridges from terrorist bombs.

Heavy rubber pads driven by hydraulic pistons can pummel columns, beams, floors, ceilings and girders with the simulated force of the sort of car bomb blast seen on the streets of Baghdad, UCSD officials said.

On Wednesday, a reinforced concrete column found in many East Coast buildings was hit with the same force as a half-ton car bomb parked curbside. The impact, which occurred faster than the eye could see it, left the column looking as if someone had grabbed it at both ends and bent it.

If the column had been supporting a building, it could spell a catastrophic building collapse. More people can die from structural collapse in a terrorist attack than the pressure or shock wave of the blast itself, said Frieder Seible, dean of UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering. Most of the 168 people killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing were killed from the partial collapse of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, not the blast itself, Seible said.

Scientists have found that wrapping load-bearing columns with coats of carbon fibers or a steel jacket can prevent concrete columns from breaking apart in an explosion. A carbon-wrapped column hardly budged under the simulated impact of a car bomb blast during an earlier test, Seible said.

Until now, engineers have only been able to test these materials by plugging their ears, detonating an explosive in front of them and watching what happens. The explosions can wipe out the equipment researchers set up to record the blast. Cameras record the fireball, not the structure.

The blast simulator delivers the same punch as a car bomb - minus the fireball - allowing high-speed cameras and instruments to record what happens.

The simulator is being funded with $8.6 million from the Technical Support Working Group or TSWG, a federal interagency organization that develops technologies to combat terrorism. More than 40 tests will be conducted in the simulator over the next two years under a $7.5 million contract from TSWG.

According to its annual report, TSWG is managed by the assistant secretary of defense for special operations. An agency representative declined comment on the blast simulator.