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December 1st, 2007
How does disaster strike for the Department of Homeland Security these days? A terrorist drives a car packed with explosives onto a major cable-supported bridge, parks it next to a crucial binding and detonates it. Splat! Paint, of all things, is everywhere -- but the cable remains intact, and the span stays standing.
Sure, stronger steel plates and trusses are primary concerns in the post-Minneapolis world of structural engineering. But as they ramp up high-tech protection against terrorism for hundreds of bridges across the country, government agencies and researchers are turning to more advanced -- and quirky -- solutions, from nanotech coatings to self-healing structures and, yes, blast-absorbing paintballs. In a research facility at Fort Knox in Kentucky, scientists with Homeland's Science and Technology Directorate are blowing up sections of bridge cable to understand how spans might fail -- and be shielded. "These bridges weren't built with the thought of a concerted adversary in mind," says Mary Ellen Hynes, the director of the research. "So we have to work with the existing bridges, and look for solutions that are practical, cheap and not too heavy."
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