COLUMBIA — MU electrical engineering professor Randy Curry is practiced at selling his work for defense funding. He’s been doing it since the Cold War.
To show his new idea for fighting Improvised Explosive Devices, Curry commissioned a cartoon from an art student — a Hummer driving through a red desert carrying what looks like a small spotlight on the roof, firing an alien green light into the sand on the road in front.
“That is a directed energy source,” Curry explains. It is the basis of pulse power and what he is pitching to the government as the future of fighting IEDs.
Of the 3,950 soldiers who have died in Iraq, most have been killed by IEDs.
Most recently, Missouri Army National Guard Sgt. Bradley J. Skelton, with the 1138th Engineer Company, was killed Wednesday, when his transport struck an IED in Iraq. The 40-year-old soldier came out of retirement last year to mobilize with his unit, which was deployed in clearing IEDs on military routes.
The explosives are now the weapon of choice of insurgents, said Christine Devries, a spokeswoman for the Joint IED Defeat Organization, established in 2006 by the Department of Defense.
“(IED’s) range in complexity from being relatively simple to make to very sophisticated,” Devries said. “Some can be made easily from household materials. It’s a way for the enemy to engage our forces without having to be in a direct one-on-one fight. They place a bomb, and then they’re not there.”
But the U.S. is getting better at fighting them, she said. In early 2007, insurgents were placing five to six times the number of IEDs that they were in 2003, while the casualties have remained relatively constant. Counter-radio controlled electronic warfare — jammers — have worked well against radio activated IEDs, as have pressure plate systems and improved training, she said.
Devries said counter IED research is a top priority for the Department of Defense.
In 2006, her department received 1,100 proposals for IED defense weapons; 400 showed enough promise for funding. Only 82 actually make it into the field, some within a year of their proposal, “which is light speed in defense department acquisition technology.”
Curry tried to find funding for his idea for three years. He said he would have had the money in a month at the height of the Cold War, during which he worked in defense contracting before coming to MU 10 years ago.
“The research programs have been hard hit by the war (in Iraq),” he said, pointing to the billions spent by the government every month.
Curry finally found a friend for his research in Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, whose son is a Marine. Bond tacked a $3 million grant into the 2008 defense budget as an earmark.
The program could take three years, said Curry, and another eight scientists from mathematics, mechanical and electrical engineering will be involved, as well as 10 or so graduate and doctoral students.
The Boeing company is sending over people as well.
“In the case of this project UMC will perform much of the research and development analyses and the testing while Boeing will determine the system requirements, capabilities and concepts of operation,” said Boeing spokesman Chris Haddox in an e-mail, adding that Boeing is working on several projects to combat IEDs.
Pulse power explores the question, “How do you deliver a large amount of energy in a very short time,” said James Thompson, dean of the college of engineering who focused on pulse power and lasers in his own engineering education.
“For example a hammer is actually pulse power,” Thompson explained. “If you have a bolt you’re trying to break loose, you can push on that bolt with constant pressure, and the bolt probably will never move. But if you have a hammer, you’re delivering that same amount of energy that you were delivering over an hour, ... but now you’re going to deliver that same amount of energy in less than a second.
“That’s more power,” Thompson said. “Pulse power; same amount of energy delivered in a very short period of time and that will break loose that bolt.”
The Pulse Power Research Laboratory on campus evokes old monster movies: electric cables from floor to ceiling and large metal grated boxes and rubber gloves hanging on the walls.
Curry has been testing a transformer-based pulse power system that can release three gigawatts — the equivalent of six power plants — of electricity one hundred times a second. The machine reaches the ceiling, and the transformer that steps up the power is the size of a garbage can. A bus sized Marx generator lies nearby and releases about 3 million volts of electricity.
“We can make them cheap and small enough that you can give one to everyone that needs one over there, every unit,” said Curry, presenting a one-shot transformer the size of a coffee can.
“We can’t tell you exactly what we’ve been doing with it,” he said about the transformer-based system a student built five years ago. “Let’s just say it’s a part of the program.”
The $3 million earmark will fund Phase I, he said, to look at the existing research and put together plans.
But more funding will be necessary to build a prototype.
A new pulse power lab was finished three weeks ago, and Curry split the cost with the university. The lab — now mostly empty — is about six times larger than his previous lab, and he plans to install test chambers to explore the new technologies.
Curry said he sees a lot of opportunity for his specialty in the future. He hopes to ride the green wave to promote a more efficient method of turning grains into ethanol, and in the past developed pulse power methods to sterilize surfaces and kill E. coli in hamburger meat.
And to his good fortune, the competition is slim, as pulse power programs are rare in the U.S. Only Texas Tech, the University of New Mexico, and MU are producing engineers with a focus on pulse power.
“It gives us an opportunity because the funding is substantial,” Thompson said, “meaning that we can make an impact in terms of what we want to do with this major problem of IEDs.”