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The Southwest Research Institute's new gas gun facility houses a light-gas launcher capable of speeds of 15,600 miles per hour. It was the highlight of SwRI's 69th anniversary VIP tour this week. (Jerry Lara / San Antonio Express-News)
By Lynn Brezosky, San Antonio Express-News
When the Army needed a new home for a 116-foot-long gun capable of testing impacts of projectiles on everything from bulletproof vests to GPS satellites, it turned to the Southwest Research Institute.
The San Antonio-based research group responded by building a 7,050-square-foot facility, one of the largest of its kind and the highlight of SwRI's 69th anniversary VIP tour.
Inside the $3.6 million facility, the massive machine is flanked by a steel-framed catwalk and is equipped with its own 15-ton overhead crane. It's a two-stage, light-gas launcher that uses compressed hydrogen to propel projectiles at speeds of close to 7 kilometers per second, or 15,660 mph, which can be an invaluable tool in figuring out how to design materials able to withstand wartime, if not cosmic, battering.
The projectiles barrel through the gun toward two large blast tanks that contain and assess the impact on various materials. Research teams using the facility also have access to cameras capable of millions of frames per second, extensive flash X-ray equipment, an array of safety equipment and a control room.
"Obviously when you're in space, orbital debris can be moving at very high velocities relative to the object that you're trying to protect, whether it's a manned flight vehicle or a satellite," Carl Weiss, manager of ballistics and explosive engineering at the institute, explained during this week's tour for SwRI's advisory trustees and board members. "What we do with this gun is hypervelocity impact" so researchers can actually test shields to ensure they can protect satellites and space stations.
SwRI got the gun as part of its 2012 acquisition of the U.S. Army's Impact Dynamics Laboratory, which had been operated by the University of Texas at Austin.
The institute has long been a leader in explosive launching technology and impact testing, and was enlisted for the research that found how a chunk of foam insulation damaged a wing, compromising the 2003 launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia and leading to the death of all seven astronauts on board. More recently, SwRi completed the windshield impact studies for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
James Walker, director of SwRI's engineering dynamics department, said the new gas gun will become the centerpiece of SwRI's launching studies, capable of studying impacts of bigger masses and higher speeds. Walker said the hypervelocity capability will augment SwRI's work in armor and anti-armor technology, impact and penetration events, and developing protection for land, sea, air and space vehicles.
"We're going to be looking at the effects of going into higher speeds because there's some interesting effects," he said. "The physics changes."
SwRI, a 1,200-acre self-described "Disneyland for scientists and engineers," is an independent, applied research and development organization founded some 70 years ago by Yale-educated oilman Thomas Baker Slick. It has 10 divisions with research that ranges from microencapsulation to emissions and fuel efficiency research to fire resistance testing for things such as gas tanks and Navy ship parts. It's drawn international media attention for its role in space exploration. SwRI scientists were a key part of developing the New Horizons spacecraft, which after a nine-year journey successfully rendezvoused with Pluto and is now en route to explore the Kuiper Belt. Of late, it's been at the forefront of research for self-driving cars.
Monday's VIP tour highlighted research and projects for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, which also included a demonstration of SwRI's Human Performance Initiative. That project has improved the process of tracking body movements by replacing a network of attached sensors with computers capable of advanced camera imagery.
"It's not very practical to spend about 25 to 30 minutes marking somebody," institute engineer Dan Nicolella said. "This is the very basic information that we need so that we start to understand the mechanics of things like forces that are occurring on our joints, how are muscles are firing and using force to generate that movement. Once we understand how we're moving and why we're moving the way we're moving, we can start to design a program to optimize that movement."
But for all the new technologies on display, there's an undercurrent of disappointment in the nonprofit's financial performance, which President Adam Hamilton attributed to political and economic uncertainty that has meant less money being allocated to research and development.
SwRI saw its revenue decline last year to about $560 million from $592 million in 2015, with net income down from close to $24 million to about $6.9 million, a 71 percent year-over-year decrease and the lowest net income in at least a decade. There also have been some job losses, with staffing in 2016 at 2,665 compared with 2,708 in 2015.
Hamilton described it as a "challenging" year.
"We're typically about 55 percent government funded and 45 percent commercial, and what you see in a transition year are uncertainties about how government programs are going to be funded," he said.
The strong dollar, China's economic slowdown and even Brexit, Britain's planned exit from the European Union, have put the squeeze on international research projects, which make up about 7 percent of SwRI's base.
The 2014 fall in oil prices also hit SwRI's 2016 workload hard, he said.
"In some way, shape or form, over half our business is related to that sector," Hamilton said of the oil and gas decline. "The falling prices really slowed down the interest in trying to develop new technologies."
An unknown going into 2017 is whether President Donald Trump's call for less regulation will affect initiatives such as emission standards that had been championed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Some of our work is driven by regulatory requirements," he said. "EPA is a good example. For emissions and such for engines, we do a lot of work in that area. ... So that could be detrimental. But at the same time that may be an opportunity for some of the engine manufacturers to look at, OK, so they don't have to meet emission standards. How can they continue to differentiate themselves?"
Still, he said, SwRI has fared better than independent research and development organizations that are more heavily dependent on government work, and it's managed to distinguish itself thanks to its campus dedicated to applied research.
"What we really excel at - and you can tell by our campus - is the applied part of applied science and technology," he said. "You can do things on computer simulations and PowerPoint presentations and studies, but when it comes to having to actually validate and prove that some technology works and can be scaled up, it takes a facility, it takes real applied applications and technology."