Flip side of the coin


In which the Department of Defense is said to be doing a Very Good Thing, even by my liberal standards.

The last two entries have painted too harsh a picture of my job. So although I'm excessively paranoid about writing about my work, I've decided to write a bit about the conference I went to last week, the one at which I doodled and dozed and longed for a Gameboy. The conference was an annual thing, attended by researchers who work on a program supported by the DoD, and it's a program I'm all for. In fact, I wish a lot more money were being spent on it.

Given that we will continue to have a military for the foreseeable future, and given that the military will continue to have weapons, the DoD wants to replace the toxic, sensitive explosives it uses in its weapons, which predate World War II. Replacements are yet to be invented, which is why scientists from many universities and government laboratories were at the conference. Computer modeling is being used in addition to experimentation, which is why I was there: I'm kind of like a consultant on computer modeling for a guy in the DoD. I slept through the chemists, pretty much.

When talking about explosives, the term "sensitive" means they can be set off accidentally. The search is on for explosives that won't go off unless deliberately detonated. Such a weapon could be shot with a bullet, burned with a blowtorch, or dropped from a forty-story building, and it wouldn't go off. Of course the DoD wants these new explosives to provide more bang for the buck, but happily, the replacements are required to be nontoxic, and to decompose into environmentally safe byproducts. Yes, that's our government, our department of defense, talking about "green" munitions. They actually use that word, without apology.

It's not safe to conclude that someone in the very highest echelons of the DoD is an environmentalist. It's more likely that they've come to grips with the cost of storage, disposal, and cleanup of stuff like TNT. Forget what it says in the Wikipedia article about sensitivity: TNT fails all of the new tests for Insensitive Munitions. Scroll down, though, to see just how toxic it is. The article also mentions RDX, another substance the DoD is hoping to replace because of its toxicity.

This research is in the early stages, and by DoD standards the program is small. But there you have it.

May 2009

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