8 November 1999

Rocket Fuel for Land Mines

by Kate Melville

The late Princess Diana was well known for her support in a campaign to abolish the use of landmines. There are estimated to be 80 million plus active land mines scattered around in at least 70 countries around the world and maim or kill more than 26,000 people a year (roughly one casualty every 22 minutes). Unfortunately since Princess Diana's death media interest in this problem seems to have waned considerably.

In an exciting new advance surplus rocket fuel has been made into a flare that can be used to safely destroy land mines without using explosives. The flare developed by Thiokol Propulsion uses surplus propellant supplied by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre. NASA allows for a small percentage of extra propellant for each Shuttle mission. Once mixed, the fuel solidifies and any excess fuel cannot be reused. Happily this by-product is the ideal ingredient for Thiokol's flare.

Arthur G. Stephenson, director of the Space Centre said, "Clearly, this project has the potential to save lives worldwide so Marshall is happy to help in this humanitarian endeavour."

The flare is simply placed next to an exposed mine (a dangerous operation in itself) and is then remotely ignited using a battery-triggered electric match. What happens is that the flare burns a hole in the mine's outer case and then ignites the explosive contents. When the explosive has burnt away the mine is then disabled and rendered harmless. Unfortunately mines still occasionally detonate before the explosive burnt, however when this occurs, the explosion is more controlled and causes less damage than other mine disposal methods - (the most common being deactivation by hand and or deliberate detonation). 'Demining' is a dangerous time-consuming activity usually done by members of military or humanitarian organisations.

This is really an interesting piece of science because it links a by-product of the US space program to a practical tool that can be used to help thousands of innocent civilians right here on earth.