RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. -- A chemistry professor from the Virginia Commonweath University will lead Army-funded research into the decomposition in energetic molecules that leads to explosions.

"The main reasons to study mechanisms of energetic molecule decomposition are to develop better methods for explosive detection and inform the design of new, better energetic molecules for particular applications," said Katherine Moore Tibbetts, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at VCU, who received the funding.

The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory, through its Army Research Office awarded Tibbets two grants totaling nearly $1.4 million. The Army Research Laboratory is the Army's corporate research laboratory, known as ARL.

Tibbetts received a five-year, $1 million Army Research Office Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, as well as $335,000 from the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program to purchase equipment.

The professor also received $60,000 last year from the Army to conduct initial research studying the dissociation dynamics of energetic molecules, which are chemical compounds used in explosives and propellants that have large amounts of energy stored in their chemical bonds.

The energy is released when the chemical bonds are broken during detonation of explosives and ignition of propellants. The goal of Tibbetts' research is to identify the processes leading to the first bond-breaking event in energetic molecules that initiates detonation.

"For instance, you might want to make a safer explosive by limiting unintended detonation, and a way to do this would be to have the energetic molecule making up the explosive able to initiate detonation only if it's hit with a certain type of laser," Tibbets said.

Tibbetts adjusts mirrors in her lab to align two laser beams that serve as a camera that captures the motions of individual energetic molecules on the femtosecond timescale.

The processes that induce bond breaking in energetic molecules can occur so fast they are measured in femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second (0.000000000000001 seconds).

To study these ultrafast processes, Tibbetts will use a pair of ultrashort pulse lasers to create a camera that captures the motions of individual energetic molecules on the femtosecond timescale.
The experiments will be performed on well-known explosives such as TNT and newly developed environmentally benign explosives such as biz-tetrazoles.

The results will have potential applications to both explosive detection and the design of novel energetic molecules with specified properties such as laser-initiated explosives.

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About CCDC Army Research Lab
The CCDC Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army's corporate research laboratory, ARL discovers, innovates and transitions science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power. Through collaboration across the command's core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more effective to win our Nation's wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.

About VCU and VCU Health
Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU's 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.