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The Hurt-Locker School

NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) puts world-class science to work keeping military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians safe through its Advanced Homemade Explosives Course. Instructor Virginia Manner, a Los Alamos staff scientist in the High Explosives Science and Technology group runs the course with co-leader Margo Greenfield of the Shock and Detonation Physics group.

EOD techs have a tough job. Their lives—and others’ lives, too—depend on how much they know. From all branches of the service, EOD techs routinely get the call to dismantle homemade explosives (HMEs) or neutralize HME factories in war zones.

The label “explosives” covers a wide range of substances that are characterized by liberating energy and producing heat under a stimulus, like an impact or spark. In the Los Alamos course, the EOD techs learn a lot about the homemade kind, defined loosely as any improvised concoction of readily available material that can blow up, often in an improvised explosive device (IED).

EOD techs talk about “getting left of the boom,” which means working before the bomb goes off. “Right of the boom” means it’s already blown up. The Los Alamos course is all about working on that left side, safely. To that end, every 6 weeks for 5 days, about 24 techs from the Air Force, Marines, and Navy come to learn more about how bad guys whip up explosives in makeshift labs.

The course provides an overview of general HME characteristics, the hazards, and related safety precautions. 45-minute lectures are balanced by 2-hour labs. Students also work with unidentified explosives on the outdoor range and explore simulated labs.

The HME course is made possible by the many scientists, engineers, and technicians in multiple divisions throughout the Laboratory. The diverse team of practicing bench scientists, who teach the course at Los Alamos, distinguishes it from other courses. The Lab currently has more than 20 instructors with expertise in explosives.

“Research can sometimes be isolated from current real-world applications,” Manner said. “It’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever done.”

Greenfield agrees: “All the instructors feel that way, and that’s why it’s so successful. We know we’re increasing the EOD techs’ overall safety. We’re using world-class science to save lives on today’s battlefields.”

Watch LANL’s video on the course to learn more or visit the website to read the full feature article.