A laser focus on safety

Optical detonators will be less susceptible to accidental detonation.

By Virginia Grant | December 13, 2021

Abstracts Lightning Opt
Lightning strikes above the main campus of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bulk of the nation’s work is done on the development and manufacturing of detonators, is an area with a lot of lightning. To make detonators safer even when the sky lights up, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working to create optical detonators—detonators that are initiated by lasers.

Traditional high-energy detonators are electrically initiated and, although extremely safe, require thousands of volts to work. Care must be taken to ensure they can’t be triggered by other electrical sources, which can range from lightning strikes to human electrostatic discharge, such as carpet shock. Now, a team at Los Alamos is working to move away from detonators that are susceptible to electrical insults—things that can set off detonators through an accidental electrical stimulus.

The goal is to replace electrical energy with optical energy, that is, laser light.

“We are developing optical detonators to improve the safety and efficiency of explosive experiments,” says Mike Bowden of the Laboratory’s Detonation Science and Technology group. “The team is developing a complete optical initiation system, including the laser that provides the optical signal, the electronics that power the laser, fiber optic cables to transport the optical signals from the laser to the detonator, and the optical detonator itself.”

Because Los Alamos is both the design agency and the production agency for detonators, the Laboratory has been able to efficiently design, manufacture, and test several prototype optical detonator designs for a variety of applications in science, engineering, and technology.