a, Science & Technology

Demilitarize McGill: The unexpected applications of military research

Demilitarize McGill is one of the most well-known and controversial groups on campus. Those unfamiliar with Demilitarize McGill from their ubiquitous stickers and posters will have heard about their Remembrance Day protest last year, which drew large amounts of media attention in. Their goal continues to be the condemnation of military research and associated programs on campus. 

During these campaigns, Demilitarize McGill’s main concern has been with research solely with military applications. The group recognizes that several modern technologies such as GPS and the internet have come from what was originally military research; however, it believes this does not apply to the military research at McGill.

“The forms of broad, fundamental scientific research that led to the development of technologies like the internet can be clearly distinguished from projects going on today at McGill—projects that aim to improve the versatility and lethal capabilities of specific weapons systems in use by Western militaries,” the Demilitarize McGill website reads.

Alternative applications of military research can be hard to see, however, they do exist. Research with only one purpose is rare. Often, a closer look at some of these projects is necessary to see what other uses they may have.

The Shockwave Physics Group

The Shockwave Physics Group (SWPG) is the most frequent target of Demilitarize McGill’s attacks, as its areas of research include detonation, the initiation of detonation, and combustion synthesis.

“The Shockwave Physics Group (SWPG) at McGill University […] has a long history of the study of […] detonation phenomena,” the group wrote on its website.

One of their researchers is Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Andrew Higgins. Higgins specializes in shock waves, blast waves, and explosions, and his work has covered things ranging from hypervelocity launchers to developing new fuels for ramjets and scramjets. Faster than turbojets, but slower than rockets, ramjets and scramjets are engines that have a prominent place in missile development. Although they have potential for spaceflight, they are primarily used in weapons, and have been said to be able to target anywhere in the world in one hour.

Hypervelocity propulsions, implosions, and explosions are frequenty used by the military; however, this work is also valuable in other fields.

Space debris and the McGill Launcher

The SWPG is trying to decrease the amount of space debris in the atmosphere. To do this, the lab has created a ‘gun’ called the McGill Launcher, which fires dense projectiles at velocities of up to 10 kilometres per second in order to simulate the effects of orbital collisions. The McGill Launcher is not being sought by any arms dealer. The ‘gun’ contains no gunpowder, can only be operated in an enormous vacuum chamber bolted onto the floor, and has no potential military application—because it is not a weapon. The entire launcher is totally destroyed after each firing, and, if the gun were ever to be fired outside a near-total vacuum, the projectile would instantly vaporize like a shooting star.

Powdered metals as hydrocarbon alternatives

In 2001, Higgins published a paper titled Powdered Metals as Fuel for Hypersonic Ramjets. The paper, which was mentioned by Demilitarize McGill as an example of McGill’s military-sponsored research that they protest, evaluated the use of metals as energy sources. Research for this was funded by the Department of Defense and later the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

This past December, McGill Mechanical Engineering Professor David Frost, another researcher from The Shockwave Group, published a paper in Applied Energy titled Direct Combustion of Recyclable Metal Fuels for Zero-Carbon Heat and Power. The paper examined powdered metal as an alternative fuel source to hydrocarbons. Fine dusts of aluminium, lithium, and iron are mixed into air and combusted, leaving metal oxides as waste. Of these, iron proves to be the most promising; tests show it provides more energy by volume than gasoline, and instead of carbon dioxide, this combustion produces nothing but iron oxide—rust—as a byproduct. Because rust doesn’t escape into the atmosphere, it can be easily collected and processed back into iron. 

The idea has a broad application. According to Higgins, research into the use of metal dusts as fuel, would not have materialized without the preliminary research conducted by the SWPG.

“It’s a direct outcome of [the 2001 paper],” Higgins said. “The expertise was developed while we were doing [the] work funded by the Department of Defense.” 

Magnetized target fusion

This same explosives and detonation research that led to the McGill Launcher is also showing potential application in a surprising field: Nuclear fusion.  General Fusion, a British-Columbia-based company working toward using fusion power as a practical energy source, is funding the SWPG to develop a new type of fusion reactor.  

The idea is to fill a sphere with liquid lithium and lead and spin it until a cavity is formed in the centre. The cavity is then injected with a 10-million-degree plasma of deuterium and tritium—isotopes of hydrogen—and pounded with shock waves from hundreds of steam-driven pistons. These waves collapse the cavity, raising the temperature to 100 million degrees, and the plasma undergoes fusion, releasing neutrons. The neutrons then heat up the lead and lithium, which can be used to create steam and turn turbines, similar to a conventional fission reactor.

Right now, the team is trying to stabilize the process by determining how to prevent the tiny imperfections in the geometry of the machine from interfering with the shockwaves. The machine itself is years away, but the SWPG is using the knowledge garnered from from projects Demilitarize McGill swore could only be used for military use. Nuclear fusion requires a huge amount of energy and work to achieve, but the math shows it’s worth it.  

“You get 10 times more power out [than you put in],” said Higgins. “If they pull this off, if this works, and they get this full-scale device to work, this will be bigger than the discovery of fire.” 

Fundamental and applied research

Higgins explained that university research groups conduct research based on fundamental principles, simply to learn, as opposed to applicational research, which has a goal in mind. The results produced by labs like SWPG tend to be the first step towards designing a product that can have various different applications. 

“You come to a department of engineering and you might expect [there to be] professors trying to build better car engines [or] trying to make robots that can work in assembly lines faster,” Higgins said. “Engineering professors don’t really do any of those things. What we do is probably closer to what you do in math. We tend to focus on really fundamental things. We study phenomena.”

In Canada, where funding is shifted more towards application, researchers are forced to make do with what they can.

“[The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada] NSERC [is] under more and more [pressure] to make sure they fund things that have application,” explained Higgins. “You can’t just fund people to pursue their own curiosity. It always has to strike a balance.”

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