An electrically-driven demolition probe originally funded by NASA enables a more precise, quieter fracturing method that its creators hope will give construction workers on Earth a break – without the blast.

Initially designed for use on the Moon, the technology, first developed at Auburn University, is set for commercialization next month.

The “Electro-Hydraulic Fracturing” system relies upon short, high-pulse power, created by ultra-high capacitors. Two electrodes, featuring a high voltage difference, are placed in a small amount of non-toxic liquid – an ounce of water, for example.

After the proprietary probe is placed in a drilled hole within concrete or rock, a very rapid release of high-voltage electrical energy, stored in the capacitors, is discharged.

Liquid provides the spark between electrodes, resulting in a high-temperature containable “plasma ball.” The ping-pong-sized bead creates a shock wave with pressures that exceed the material’s compressive strength, causing a fracture.

Because the system is electrically sourced, users can control the energy “on-the-fly” to provide precision-controlled fractures, according to Frank Magnotti, Chief Executive Officer of Petram Technologies, the Cambridge, MA-based company prepared to commercialize the technology.

By engineering the electrodes, liquid, and discharge strength, users can create specific breaks to match the material and surrounding constraints.

The plasma blasting probe. (Credit: Auburn University)

“You can dial up the intensity of the plasma ball to fracture greater pieces or smaller pieces, or just precisely crack the structure,” said Magnotti.

According to the CEO, the company has increased the performance of the probe threefold, presently yielding up to 3 cubic yards per "blast" – quotation marks used by Magnotti to emphasize the quieter approach to demolition.

From the Moon to the Ground

The Electro-Hydraulic Fracturing idea originally came about almost a decade ago, as NASA brainstormed different ways to mine the resources of the Moon – a low-gravity environment where traditional explosives are unlikely to work.

NASA also required an alternative to carrying a load of explosives, jack hammers, and combustible chemicals on the lengthy trip through space.

As a result, the space agency funded a project with Auburn University to develop an alternative. Petram Technologies acquired the exclusive rights to the university’s patented electrical-probe technology and expanded its use to include demolition and construction applications on Earth.

After exclusive licensing from Auburn, Magnotti was brought on board as CEO. In addition to the two PhD Auburn University patent holders Steve Best and Martin Baltazar, Petram recruited principal investigator Brian Wells to run the company’s test facility located in Notasulga, Alabama.

With the rapid release of the capacitor's high-voltage electrical energy, the Electro-Hydraulic Fracturing probe is designed to operate more quickly than conventional, chemically-driven explosive blasts – an advantage for workers trying to avoid bursts of noise and debris, said one of the Auburn patent holders.

“This allows us to virtually eliminate fly-rock, noise, and seismic vibrations,” Best told Tech Briefs.

Steel-reinforced concrete cylinder 6.2 ft(cubed) after blast test with 6-inch probe. (Credit: Auburn University)

Because the approach is a quieter, more precise form of fracturing, the system potentially provides new efficiency benefits in the construction field. In urban foundation demolition, for example, the technology's muted operation could allow crews to work at night and dramatically speed up project timelines.

“The noise levels are practically nonexistent,” said the Petram Technologies CEO. “It’s not like jack hammering a road. You could actually have demolition projects at night, near hospitals.”

Also, being electrically driven, the technology does not require the chemicals and gas by-products inherent with chemical blasting, said Magnotti.

Down the Road: What’s Next

While initial applications for Electro-Hydraulic Fracturing were planned for mining and roadway construction, Magnotti and his team see more financial opportunity in precision, or “surgical,” demolition, including compressor concrete foundation demolition – a space-constrained effort that compacts the soil around concrete pilings.

Petram has replicated Auburn’s previous lab testing setup in the Notasulga, Alabama facility. Enhancements include a large water tank facility with hydrophones to characterize the plasma-blasting shock waves created.

The Petram team also made a new simulation model to analyze the effects of simultaneous blasts and the effects of hole depth on crack size.

The company’s first commercial product is scheduled for February 16, 2018 and will be trailer mounted for multiple field applications.

What do you think? Will noise-less demolition catch on? What other applications are possible? Share your thoughts below.