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7th International Energy Conversion Engineering Conference AIAA 2009-4550

2 - 5 August 2009, Denver, Colorado

Analysis and Simulations of Low Power Plasma

Blasting for processing Lunar Materials

Martin E. Baltazar-Lopez1,Steve Best,2, Henry W. Brandhorst, Jr.3, Zachary M. Burell 4

Space Research Institute, Auburn University, AL 36849-5320 USA

Matthew E. Heffernan 5 and M. Frank Rose 6

Radiance Technologies, Auburn, AL, 36849 USA

A prototype blasting power system suitable for excavation on the moon’s surface was
constructed and tested in the Space Research Institute (SRI) facilities. Such a system
incorporates the use of electrically powered plasma blasting via a blasting probe and
comprises a capacitor bank which is charged with a power supply at a relatively low rate
(e.g. a few seconds) and then discharged at a very high rate (power pulse of tens of
microseconds), generating a shock wave on a sample solid substance causing its fracture.
After successfully testing the blasting power system and blasting probes, breaking specimens
with masses of up to 850kg, 2-D and 3-D numerical simulations were carried out in order to
correlate the experimental data of several samples of concrete cylinders. It is possible with a
non-linear hydro-code numerical approach to simulate the rapid discharge into high peak
power transient loads which eventually break the specimens.


Pd = Power density
Ipk = Peak current
E = Voltage
V = Volume of reactant (blasting media)

I. Introduction

T HERE is a need of numerical simulations of the plasma blasting event performed by a high peak pulsed power
conversion system in which a capacitor is charged over a long period of time at low current (power), and then
discharged in a very short pulse at very high current to break blocks of concrete or large rocks. Such a system for
excavation on the moon’s surface as well as scalable prototypes of plasma blasting probes for electrically powered
pulsed plasma rock blasting were developed and tested at the Space Research Institute (SRI) facilities. Several
experiments including blasting and fracturing of concrete blocks and granite rocks with masses up to 850kg were
Experimental testing can be expensive and time-consuming and plasma blasting is not exception. In
experimentation there could be things that go wrong when they are least expected, sometimes several tests are
needed in order to obtain a single valid data point. Thus numerical simulation can be used to complement and
validate the experimentation and once the simulation is validated it could even be used as an alternative to
experimentation within certain limits, with the corresponding savings in time and money.

Research Fellow, Space Research Institute, 231 Leach Center, Auburn University, 36849, AIAA Senior Member
Research Engineer, Space Research Institute, 231 Leach Center, Auburn University, 36849, AIAA Member
Director, Space Research Institute, 231 Leach Center, Auburn University, 36849, AIAA Associate Fellow
Research Assistant, Space Research Institute, 231 Leach Center, Auburn University, 36849
Engineer, Radiance Technologies Inc., 231 Leach Center, Auburn University, 36849
Chief Technical Officer, Radiance Technologies Inc., 350 Wynn Drive, Huntsville, AL 35805, AIAA Associate
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Copyright © 2009 by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc. All rights reserved.
The numerical methods used to simulate the blast effects problem typically are based upon a finite volume, finite
difference, or finite element method with explicit time integration scheme. In this work, a three dimensional
hydrocode is used to simulate the plasma blasting of concrete samples and some of the capabilities of these types of
codes to predict plasma blast loading are illustrated

II. Numerical Physics-Based Method


Hydrocodes can be used to simulate explosions and other high rate events. Most of the work on blasting
simulation using hydrocodes is aimed to study the effects originated by chemical explosives. For example, 2-D axial
symmetrical simulations for damage in blasted cylindrical rocks under explosive loading to analyze rock failure
mechanism was done by Zhu, et al.[1]. In another study, Plotzitza1 et al.[2] compare results of using mesh-based
hydrocode and a mesh-free Smooth Particle Hydrodynamics (MLSPH) method for 3-D simulation of concrete under
explosive loading.
Simulation of plasma blasting events has been done by Maldhaban et al.[3] with the purpose of characterizing the
plasma blasting in water and in another study by Pronko et al. [4] to determine power deposition and dynamic load
impedance based on the analysis of electric circuit characteristics. However, hydrocodes have been used very
incipiently for simulation of plasma blasting. In a study with a two-dimensional hydrocode SHALE, which is an
arbitrary Lagrangian Eulerian hydrodynamic code, Ikkurthi et al.[5] made simulations of crack propagation using a
crack growth and propagation model via the Bedded Crack Model (BCM). The study is limited to determining
fragmentation in one plane, thus it does not provide details which cannot be described in two-dimensional geometry
and can only be obtained from a 3-D simulation.
Here we use AUTODYN [6] hydrocode for 2-D and 3-D simulation of plasma blasting events with the purpose of
getting an estimation of the damage of plasma blasting on concrete samples and then to validate those simulations
with experimental results. Once the code and simulations are validated, it will be possible to estimate blasting
damage on samples of concrete and other materials, saving the costs and time of experimentation, e.g., casting
concrete samples.
In solid mechanics problems, Lagrangian meshes have been used almost exclusively. Lagrangian meshes are
preferred for two reasons. First, as a solid deforms, its boundaries (if they initially coincided with an Eulerian mesh)
will no longer coincide with the Eulerian mesh lines, so complex procedures are needed at the boundaries. Second,
the stress-strain behavior and history of a solid is associated with material points, so that it is most convenient to
associate material zones in some manner with mesh zones. AUTODYN can handle both approaches selecting the
type of solver for a particular problem. The prescribed solvers in the code are Lagrange, Euler, Euler FCT, Shell,
ALE, or SPH. The choice of processor for each case is made according to the type of dynamic behavior expected.
For example, for gas or fluid dynamic behavior an Euler approach is typically utilized. For solid or structural
behavior, typically a Lagrange type of approach is chosen. The proper choice of processor type will provide an
accurate and efficient solution.

III. Power Density of Plasma Blasting


Even though evaluating the performance of materials under several conditions like burning, deflagration and
detonation is different, it is possible to compare them in terms of power density. The power density per unit volume
of reactant material for some specific events is given by Zukas and Walters[7] in W/cm3. For comparison purposes,
the power density in the case of plasma blasting can be calculated taking into account the energy spent at the plasma
blasting probe. For example, if the electrode separation in the blasting probe is of 1 inch, the blasting media
occupies the volume between the bottom of the borehole, the ground electrode and the blasting tip. The estimated
volume, completely filled with blasting media is 4.83cm3, which is also in accordance with the spherical volume
considered by Ikkurthi et al. [5] to estimate plasma blasting pressure levels. Based on those typical values, a power
density per unit volume can be calculated as follows:
I pk E
Pd = 1
Hence, to obtain the maximum power at 52kJ assuming a system charge with 16kV, from the experimental time-
history data, the voltage spent at the blasting probe is multiplied times the measured peak current; this gives a power
of 758MW. This value is then divided by the volume of reactant blasting media for a total power density of 157
MW/ cm3. This value is in agreement and within the range of values calculated by Pronko et al. [4], and then we can
say that a typical blasting test with the SRI’s plasma blasting system could provide a power density of 150 MW for

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an initial energy charge of 53kJ and for the actual volume of blasting media contained between the borehole and the
blasting probe.
As it can be observed in Table I, plasma blasting, compared to burning, and deflagration has higher power density,
but it is not as high as that of high explosive materials. However, is it is shown later, because the very high loading
rate, the results of plasma blasting can be compared to those of high explosives, this is also true because
performance is dependent on the velocity of detonation among other variables.

Table I. Power Densities for various events.

Event Power density KW/cm³
Burning Acetylene 10-1
Deflagrating propellants 103
Plasma Blasting 105
Detonating high Explosive 107

IV. Experiments

After successfully blasting concrete specimens without any reinforcement we proceeded to test a set of samples to
include the steel wire reinforcement and granite rocks with the purpose to emulate rocks and lunar soil. The steel
wire mesh used was 2 wrapped layers of 0.125” steel wire welded mesh of 6” x 6” spacing. The test setup is shown
in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Test setup characteristics of 24” dia. X 36” long, steel-reinforced concrete
cylinder sample.

The concrete cylinders were blasted using a 12” deep plasma blasting probe. The probe had 1” electrode gap. Un-
reinforced concrete of this size were easily shattered and scattered about the lab. This time the steel accomplished its
purpose of reinforcing the concrete sample, and it fractured and cracked in many pieces. As can be observed in the
top part of Fig.2, the cracks extended in some cases all the way down the height of the sample, and others down the
distance approximately equal to the depth of the borehole. The radial cracks on the upper surface tended to form the
now usual quadrant shapes.

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Figure 2. Steel-Reinforced concrete cylinder 6.2 ft3 (0.17m3) after blast test (a) with
12” Probe and (b) with 6” probe.
Another test series corresponded to similarly sized steel-reinforced concrete cylinders, but now blasted using a
short 6” plasma blasting probe. As can be observed in the bottom part of Figure 2, the effect had some surface
spallation. This blast was characterized by a considerable zone of crushing around the borehole, in this case with
cracks extending up to the walls of the cylinder. The number of radial cracks and cracks to the side walls also
increased though the gaps in the cracks were smaller compared to those of the 12” blast probe test. Most of the side
crack went down approximately 9.5”, or 3.5” lower than the blast probe implying an average lateral crack angle of
approximately 16 degrees. The energy calculations from the time-history waveforms corresponding to this series of
tests, can be found in previous work[8,9].

Figure 3. Granite rock, before and after blast test shot with 12” Probe.
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4 V. Simulations
2-D simulations
Several plasma blasting computer simulation scenarios were run and examined on 24” dia. x 36” long, steel-
reinforced concrete cylinder with 60µs energy pulse width and 12” probe. The reason for developing computer
simulation capabilities was to see if this could be a viable option to help us examine future application and
techniques for plasma blasting prior to conducting real physical laboratory tests. Actual laboratory blast tests would
be compared to a comparable series of simulated plasma blasting runs of a large perimeter-reinforced concrete block
at various depths and blasting pressure.
In computer simulations we assume an initial energy charge of 53kJ. The electrical basis for these simulations
corresponds to the experimental sample blasted in a typical test where it was observed that the current pulse is
delivered in approx. 60µs. This suggested the pulse or energy deposition interval to be used as a starting value for
the simulations.
Due to the absence of proper physical model for arc power deposition or
pressure measurements, it is considered that the peak pressure in the plasma
blasting zone is a hydrostatic pulse. Then we simulated the blast loading by
applying stress boundary conditions to the borehole faces within the blasting
zone. This approximates the loading experienced in a real cylinder with a blast
probe electrode gap of 1”. Considering that energy is being delivered to the
blasting media precisely when the current flowing through it is a non-zero value,
the loading rate was estimated from I-V time-history traces obtained during
actual testing. In our simulations we included a loading rate with a pulse profile
of the form of an underdamped harmonic oscillator, with peak amplitude of
600Mpa and duration of 60µs, which is representative of what we saw in
experiments. The Lagrangian solver of the code was used to solve the 2-D axial
symmetric model with 31,350 elements. A Porous EOS for concrete was
integrated with activated stochastic failure. The original solution is half of that
shown in Fig. 4, then it is mirrored to complete the view.
Figure 4. Result after 300µs We did more simulation varying the energy deposition pulse widths including
simulation in a steel- 50µs, 60µs, 75µs, 100µs, 125µs, 150µs, 200µs, 250µs, and 300µs and we could
reinforced concrete sample. observe that the longer deposition time, the less damage immediately around the
Energy deposition rate 60µs blasting zone. However according to the simulations, the direction of cracks and
extension of damage varies. For lower times the damage is concentrated in the
central portion of the cylinder with cracks extending towards the top and bottom parts almost vertically in a short
distance after some initial quasi radial direction. For slower (longer) pulses, or energy deposition pulse widths, the
cracks are extended towards the exterior in a 45 degree pattern forming conic cracks up and down, appearing as an
“X” in cross-section. This suggests that the damage is greater in the top part than in the bottom with shorter pulse

3-D simulations
The use of 2-D axial symmetry is a computationally efficient way to simulate the loading of a 3-D cylinder.
However it does not show the complete solution of true dynamic fracture and fragmentation of specimens during
and after the plasma blasting and full three-dimensional analysis is necessary to obtain the actual solution.
The three-dimensional Lagrange processor in
AUTODYN-3D is based on the approach derived in HEMP-
3D by Wilkins et al [10] and is an extension to the 2D
processor. The Lagrange coordinate system can
accurately follow particle histories, and therefore
accurately define material interfaces and also follow stress
histories of material in elasticplastic flow. Materials are
defined on a structured (I, J, K) numerical mesh of six sided
brick type (hexahedral) elements, Fig. 5, and the eight nodes
(one on each vertex), of the mesh move with the material
flow velocity. Material stays within the element in which it
originally lay.
Figure 5. Hexahedral element showing the I-J-
The partial differential equations to be solved express the
K convention of nodes[11].
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conservation of mass, momentum and energy in Lagrangian coordinates. These, together with a material model and
boundary conditions, define the solution of the problem. Material associated with a Lagrangian zone stays with that
zone under any deformation. Thus a Lagrangian grid moves and distorts with the material it models and
conservation of mass is automatically satisfied. Details of governing equations are found in the AUTODYN Theory
Because of symmetry, only half cylinder was modeled. The particular cylindrical shape of concrete with a
borehole was formed with a two-part model. The two parts were joined as shown in Fig. 6.
In this case the models were solved with Lagrangian solver and also could be solved using the ALE solver. The
dimensions of the cylinder are 36” long, 24” diameter with a borehole of 1” diameter. The solid model had a total of
260,344 nodes, the simulation solution time ended at 300µs, and the pressure loading condition was 600MPa with a
pulse width of 60 µs to emulate the plasma blasting. This simulation took approximately 3 hrs to run using a dual
core processor @ 2.2GHz, 2GB of RAM.
In blasting of concrete, the mechanisms of
material failure and damage occur by the sudden
growth of cleavage cracks. The response of the
material is then a loss of strength that leads to the
failure. The softening response after the peak load
is a structural response to the damage, and should
not be considered as stress-strain curves for the
The code implements complex constitutive
relations for non-homogeneous materials such as
soils, rocks and concrete. To model the behavior of
concrete, a Porous Equation of State (EOS) is used
and the strength model implemented is a Drucker-
Prager strength model which is a pressure-
Figure 6. Model with two joined concentric cylindrical dependent model for determining whether a
parts. material has failed or undergone plastic yielding. It
was determined that the Drucker-Prager criterion
gave the best results for this application based upon previous physical observations of the plasma blasting
experiment samples. The Drucker-Prager failure model, with a porous EOS was chosen as the best combination of
failure model and equation of state for these simulations. The other options used were the RHT concrete model EOS
and the Johnson-Cook failure mode. The RHT (Riedel, Heirmaier, and Thoma) concrete model EOS, which has its
own associated RHT-failure model, produced results inconsistent with what was observed in our experimental
plasma blasting. We had begun computer simulations with the RHT model, but once we worked through symmetry
issues, the RHT model produced anomalous results giving damage between 0.95 and 1 in greater than 50% of the
sample which is obviously not what we see experimentally. Similar unacceptable results were obtained when using
the Johnson-Cook failure mode. The porous EOS with Drucker-Prager failure model produced results very, very
similar to what was actually seen in experimentation.
One approach to simulating the response of concrete is to explicitly model the mechanisms of damage and failure
in the material. The program has the option to present the results in terms of damage with a relative scale going from
zero to one, and graphically with a scale of colors. Also it is possible to specify stochastic failure mechanism in
concrete to take into account the heterogeneities in the material. Values of the Bulk modulus, and the ultimate
compressive strength of concrete were obtained from bench tests.

5 VI. Results

Comparison of the simulation and the experiment

We reviewed and compared some observations made between computer simulations of concrete blasting with
physical observations after cutting open one of the perimeter-steel wire reinforced cylindrical concrete blocks which
had been previously blasted and saved for this comparative analysis.
When the results from the simulation are compared to the experiment, Fig. 7, it is evident that there is more
similitude than difference on the shape and trends of line cracks. For the 12 inch probe sample, the cracks started
extending from the initial area of blast in approx. 40 degrees continuing towards the upper part almost vertically.
Located at approx 20 degrees down from the horizontal a medium crack developed extending radially from the

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center. Another set of cracks developed downward mainly in two lines one directed almost vertical to the bottom
and another one in approx 45 degrees.
Highlighting the cracks on the picture and comparing side to side with the simulation, it can be observed that the
simulation fairly well corresponds to this particular experimental concrete sample blasted with initial energy of
53kJ, a total net energy used in blast of 26.7kJ, and a deposition in 60µs. At this point we could say that the
simulation is reasonably validated with the experiment.
Crack Growth
Preliminary results of damage and crack growth in 2-D
simulations demonstrated congruence between numerical
and experimental results for blasts performed on 12’’ and
18’’ concrete cylinders[9]. The loading process to the
concrete during electro-hydraulic blasting divides in two
basic loads. There is the initial shock wave blast on the
inside of the borehole which initiates cracking in the
sample. This is followed by a slower loading phase from
the expanding hot gases which penetrate and evolve the
cracks initiated during shock wave loading.
As in the case of 2-D simulations, in the 3-D simulations
we only investigate the shock wave loading due to stress
exerted inside the borehole in order to understand how
loading rates determine the initial cracking pattern. We also
assume that the peak pressure and pulse duration are based
upon spherical source geometry with symmetric
propagation of the pressure wave. The plot of the pressure
pulse detected by a virtual gauge in the model is shown in
Fig. 8.
The resulting crack propagation and damage after 300µs
simulation time is presented in Figure 9 and it is compared
to the result of the 2-D simulation under same conditions.
The resulting red zones represent a fragment path with
material reduced to small rubble which has totally lost its Figure 7. Comparison of simulation and
strength. experiment of a blasted 24 in reinforced concrete

Figure 9. 24”x 36” cylindrical concrete sample

models after 300µs simulation time of a 600MPa
blast @ 60µs pulse width, (a) y-plane view of 3D
Figure 8. Time-history of the pressure pulse as detected simulation and (b) 2D simulation
at a point near the “hot zone”
Yellowish lines emanating from the rubbled zone represent cracks. Figure 9 indicates that almost symmetrical
crack growth occurs on both sides from the blasting hole, forming the “X” shaped crack pattern which also was
observed in the 2-D simulations.

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A quasi horizontal fragment path develops passing through the center of the “X” shape. Cracks located at the mid
length on each “leg” of the X shape developed in vertical direction, this trend was noticed in the 2-D simulations
too. Note that in the 2D simulations the symmetry is perfect because the original simulation was for half of the
model and the result is mirrored along vertical axis to complete the model.
A sequence of time-history of cracks and damaged zones is shown in Fig. 10.

Figure 10. Crack propagation sequence after blasting simulation with 600MPa pulse.

Sliced view planes of damage

The 3-D solutions can be represented in cut-out sliced plane views along radial and longitudinal directions. This is
useful to verify the symmetry (or lack of symmetry) of cracks and damage along different radial planes and
longitudinal (transversal) planes. In Fig. 11 the slices of radial cut-out planes of the concrete sample blasted with
600MPa and 60µs pulse width are seen. The slices were taken each 15 degrees angular separation. As can be
observed, those slices varied from one angle to the other, which at first view, is in concordance with the
experiments. Note that for view separated each by 45 degrees, approximately repeated patterns are observed.
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0º 15º 30º

45º 60º 75º 90º 105º

120º 135º 150º 165º 180º

Figure 11. Sliced planes along radial direction of concrete sample blasted with
600MPa and 60µs pulse width after 300µs simulation.
The second part of this analysis consisted of virtual transversal cut outs to get sliced planes in the longitudinal
direction in order to inspect the variation of damage at distance step intervals of 0.5” or 1” each from the bottom. As
can be seen in Fig. 12, the damage level varied across the length of the model, being more intense near the bottom of
the blasting hole. These sliced planes confirmed that the stochastic nature of the material definition worked fine to
emulate the heterogeneity of concrete as it produced non-symmetric results in the three-dimensional simulation.

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Figure 12. Sliced Planes along longitudinal (transversal )direction of concrete sample blasted with
600MPa and 60µs pulse width after 300µs simulation. The distance indicated is from the bottom of
the sample.

6 VII. Conclusion
Experiments of plasma blasting on concrete and granite rocks were performed with the purpose to emulate rocks
and lunar soil. Two and three dimensional simulations of plasma blasting on concrete samples were performed. In
general, it was shown that the mechanisms of damage and failure of plasma blasting can be simulated by hydrocodes
and the solutions are very congruent with the experimental results. The heterogeneous nature of concrete samples
blasted with 600MPa and 60µs pulse width was numerically verified by the asymmetry of cracks and damage along
different radial and longitudinal (transversal) planes.
It is possible to analyze various structural response situations including damage and failure over a wide range of
loading conditions without the need of setting up an experimental rig for each analysis, realizing a savings in time
and experimental costs.

7 VIII. Acknowledgements

This work was supported under NASA Contract No. 07-060287, “Highly Efficient High Peak Power Electrical
Systems for Space Applications” funded through Radiance Technologies, Inc.
Any opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NASA.

8 IX. References
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International Journal of Rock Mechanics & Mining Sciences, 45 , 111–121 2008.

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2. Plotzitza1 A.; Rabczuk T.; and Eibl J., Techniques for Numerical Simulations of Concrete Slabs for
Demolishing by Blasting, Journal of Engineering Mechanics, Vol. 133, No. 5, 523-533, May 1, 2007.
3. Madhavan, S.; Doiphode, P.M.; Chaturvedi, S.; Modeling of shock-wave generation in water by electrical
discharges, IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science, Volume 28, Issue 5, 1552 – 1557, , Oct. 2000.
4. Pronko, S.; Schofield, G.; Hamelin, M.; Kitzinger, F.; Megajoule Pulsed Power Experiments for Plasma
Blasting Mining Applications. Ninth IEEE International Pulsed Power Conference, Vol. 1,15-18, Jun 1993.
5. Ikkurthi V. R., Tahiliani K., Chaturvedi S., Simulation of crack propagation in rock in plasma blasting
technology, Shock Waves, 12: 145–152, 2002.
6. Century Dynamics Inc., ANSYS® AUTODYN® Explicit Software for Nonlinear Dynamics, User Manual,
Ver. 11, 2007.
7. Zukas J.A., Walters W.P., Explosive Effects and Applications, Springer-Verlag, 1997.
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Powered Plasma Blasting for Lunar Materials Processing, IEEE 35th International Conference on Plasma
Science, ICOPS 2008, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2008.
9. Best S., Baltazar-López M. E., Burell Z. M., Brandhorst, H.W., Heffernan M. E., Rose M.F. ,A Low
Power Approach for Processing Lunar Materials, 6th International Energy Conversion Engineering
Conference (IECEC), Cleveland, Ohio, 28 - 30 July 2008.
10. Wilkins, M. L., Blum, R. E., Cronshagen, E. & Grantham, P. , A Method for Computer Simulation of
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Revision 4.3. 2005.

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