2/9/01

Mitch Emmons, 334/844-5964

AU RESEARCH FOCUSED ON DEVELOPING ALTERNATIVE IN WEAPONRY

AUBURN An Auburn University materials scientist is hoping his research will help provide the U.S. military with an alternative to using depleted uranium in its high-tech weaponry.

The work by Professor Ralph Zee in the Department of Materials Engineering would maintain the weapon's target destroying integrity, but might lessen its impact on the environment.

Zee says that certain tungsten alloys, produced in single crystalline form, may provide a more suitable alternative to the current practice of using depleted uranium in kinetic energy weapons. His development is scheduled for testing at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.

Kinetic energy weapons are designed primarily to destroy heavily armored or densely fortified targets, such as tanks and bunkers.

Unlike traditional bombs, a kinetic energy projectile does not explode upon impact but penetrates the target to destroy it from the inside.

"A kinetic energy weapon has no explosive charge other than the charge needed to launch the projectile," says Zee. "It destroys its target by means of its velocity."

For the projectile to function properly, it must be made of a very heavy, very fast material, Zee said. The material also must not break up on impact so that it can penetrate the target.

Because of its very high density and because it meets the other requirements, depleted uranium is used in these high-tech bombs.

Depleted uranium, though, poses health and safety concerns that can linger long after the military conflict ends.

Kinetic energy weapons were used extensively in the Gulf War and during the 1999 NATO bombings in Kosovo. Uranium leaves a radioactive, toxic residue that renders the target area contaminated.

Special military cleanup crews must be deployed to decontaminate the areas after combat ends. However, this does not prevent unwary resident civilians from being exposed to potential health hazards before detoxification is completed. This hazard is central to a global controversy over the use of depleted uranium in bombs.

"The concern is that this radioactive, toxic residue may be linked to illness," Zee said.

The Associated Press has reported that cases of leukemia among peacekeepers who served in Kosovo may be linked to the depleted uranium contained in bombs used during the NATO air strikes.

Zee said that the military is genuinely interested in eliminating the need for using depleted uranium in its weapons program. The problem, however, is finding a substitute metal with the necessary properties.

Gold and platinum each meet the density requirements, but Zee said those metals are too expensive.

Tungsten meets the density requirements, is affordable and is environmentally safe Zee has successfully produced tungsten crystals in his laboratory that meet the military's weaponry criteria. His work now is focused on impact testing of the material and developing cost-effective manufacturing techniques for mass producing the tungsten crystals.

The project is a joint effort between Auburn and General Atomics of San Diego, with funding from the Army. If successful, Zee's research will not end the threat of war, but it may reduce its devastation among nonmilitary victims.

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feb01:AU-uranium