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The Detonation Research Test Facility will be located on the RELLIS Campus in Bryan, Texas. The facility’s centerpiece is a 2-meter diameter, 200-meter-long detonation tube that is made of steel walls at least 3/4-inch thick. | Image: Courtesy of The Texas A&M University System

A new Detonation Research Test Facility (DRTF) will be built and opened next year on the RELLIS Campus, adding to its array of capabilities for solving complex global problems.

Dr. Elaine Oran, a world authority on the physics and chemistry of explosions, will lead a team at the DRTF examining how flammable gases and other materials interact and sometimes — though not always — detonate on a massive scale.

The discoveries could help prevent horrific mining, industrial and home accidents, predict the path of wildfires and make high-speed engines run more efficiently. It even could improve the understanding of supernovas. 

The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents on Thursday approved a plan to invest $5 million for construction of what is likely to be the largest university-based facility of its kind in the world.

The centerpiece is a 2-meter diameter, 200-meter-long detonation tube that is made of steel walls at least 3/4-inch thick. It will sit on concrete supports two feet above ground in a secure, isolated and open area near the runways of the former Air Force base.

Funding for the facility is split evenly between the Governor’s University Research Initiative, which Gov. Greg Abbott began in 2015, and the Chancellor’s Research Initiative, which Chancellor John Sharp began in 2013.

“This investment is bound to lead to remarkable breakthroughs,” Sharp said. “We’ll make Texas oil, gas and chemical industries, and the entire world safer from accidental explosions.”

The governor’s and chancellor’s research initiatives were designed to attract more top faculty to Texas, and they both played a role in the 2019 hiring of Oran. She is an aerospace engineering professor and the O’Donnell Foundation Chair VI in the Texas A&M College of Engineering.

She came from the University of Maryland and previously served as the Senior Scientist for Reactive Flow Physics at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. There she led a research team that used a smaller-scale detonation facility in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania (now closed) to measure how gases, liquids and solids interact and sometimes cause explosions. Researchers call these issues “reactive flow problems.”

Oran pioneered computational technology to address reactive flow problems, unifying concepts in chemistry, physics, engineering and computer science in a new methodology.

“We’re looking at explosions: the physics that cause accidental explosions and how to stop them; or in the case of high-speed engines, how to promote them quickly and control them,” Oran said. “It’s all about safety, control and advancing knowledge.”

She said she was attracted to Texas and Texas A&M by the willingness to invest in a detonation facility that could “get us to the next level of discovery and information.”

“It was just an amazing opportunity,” Oran said. “It’s the kind of thing you really couldn’t say no to.”

The DRTF will have a protective earth berm between the steel detonation tube and a control building for researchers. At the opposite end, a concrete wall and berms will surround a muffler pipe to keep the noise down.

The facility will be near two other testing ranges being assembled for the George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex (BCDC), in partnership with Army Futures Command, to advance warfare-related technology. One BCDC range is an enclosed highly instrumented tube for testing lasers and other materials traveling at hypersonic speed; the other is an outdoor range for experimenting with high-tech combat vehicles and their communication systems.

While the detonation facility is not part of the BCDC per se, discoveries there could have applications for the Department of Defense.

Detonation-related discoveries also could advance the work of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center, which is operated by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) to promote safety in chemical processes in the oil, gas and pharmaceutical industries.

The safety center was established in memory of an employee killed in a 1989 explosion at the Phillips Petroleum Complex in Pasadena, Texas. The initial blast registered 3.5 on the Richter scale, and an ensuing conflagration took 10 hours to control. In all, 23 employees died and 314 were injured.

The DRTF will be operated by TEES as well. It will join a wide array of new, cutting-edge facilities at the RELLIS Campus on the western edge of Bryan, including the BCDC, the Center for Infrastructure Renewal, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the SecureAmerica Institute.