Detonators and Dynamite

The Frank Leux Building demolition animation
Photo courtesy
The Frank Leux Building in Birmingham, Ala., was demolished by Engineered Demolition, Inc. in the spring of 1997.
In the last section, we saw how blasters plan out a building implosion. Once they have a clear idea of how the structure should fall, it's time to prepare the building. The first step in preparation, which often begins before the blasters have actually surveyed the site, is to clear any debris out of the building. Next, construction crews, or, more accurately, destruction crews, begin taking out non-load-bearing walls within the building. This makes for a cleaner break at each floor: If these walls were left intact, they would stiffen the building, hindering its collapse. Destruction crews may also weaken the supporting columns with sledge hammers or steel-cutters, so that they give way more easily.

Next, blasters can start loading the columns with explosives. Blasters use different explosives for different materials, and determine the amount of explosives needed based on the thickness of the material. For concrete columns, blasters use traditional dynamite or a similar explosive material. Dynamite is just absorbent stuffing soaked in a highly combustible chemical or mixture of chemicals. When the chemical is ignited, it burns quickly, producing a large volume of hot gas in a short amount of time. This gas expands rapidly, applying immense outward pressure (up to 600 tons per square inch) on whatever is around it. Blasters cram this explosive material into narrow bore holes drilled in the concrete columns. When the explosives are ignited, the sudden outward pressure sends a powerful shock wave busting through the column at supersonic speed, shattering the concrete into tiny chunks.

Demolishing steel columns is a bit more difficult, as the dense material is much stronger. For buildings with a steel support structure, blasters typically use the specialized explosive material cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, called RDX for short. RDX-based explosive compounds expand at a very high rate of speed, up to 27,000 feet per second (8,230 meters per second). Instead of disintegrating the entire column, the concentrated, high-velocity pressure slices right through the steel, splitting it in half. Additionally, blasters may ignite dynamite on one side of the column to push it over in a particular direction.

Concrete columns and steel columns demolitions
Photo courtesy
Concrete columns (on the left) are blown apart with conventional dynamite or a similar sort of explosive. Steel columns (on the right) are sliced in half using a high-velocity explosive called RDX.

To ignite both RDX and dynamite, you must apply a severe shock. In building demolition, blasters accomplish this with a blasting cap, a small amount of explosive material (called the primer charge) connected to some sort of fuse. The traditional fuse design is a long cord with explosive material inside. When you ignite one end of the cord, the explosive material inside it burns at a steady pace, and the flame travels down the cord to the detonator on the other end. When it reaches this point, it sets off the primary charge.

blasting caps
Photo courtesy
Blasting caps are used as a catalyst to set off the explosives loaded in support columns.

These days, blasters often use an electrical detonator instead of a traditional fuse. An electrical detonator fuse, called a lead line, is just a long length of electrical wire. At the detonator end, the wire is surrounded by a layer of explosive material. This detonator is attached directly to the primer charge affixed to the main explosives. When you send current through the wire (by hooking it up to a battery, for example), electrical resistance causes the wire to heat up. This heat ignites the flammable substance on the detonator end, which in turn sets off the primer charge, which triggers the main explosives.

columns loaded with explosives
Photo courtesy
Columns are fully loaded with explosives and hooked up to blasting caps and fuses.

To control the explosion sequence, blasters configure the blast caps with simple delay mechanisms, sections of slow-burning material positioned between the fuse and the primer charge. By using a longer or shorter length of delay material, the blasters can adjust how long it takes each explosive to go off. The length of the fuse itself is also a factor, since it will take much longer for the charge to move down a longer fuse than a shorter one. Using these timing devices, the blasters precisely dictate the order of the explosions.

Blasters determine how much explosive material to use based largely on their own experience and the information provided by the architects and engineers who originally built the building. But most of the time, they won't rely on this data alone. To make sure they don't overload or under-load the support structure, the blasters perform a test blast on a few of the columns, which they wrap in a shield for safety. The blasters try out varying degrees of explosive material, and based on the effectiveness of each explosion, they determine the minimum explosive charge needed to demolish the columns. By using only the necessary amount of explosive material, the blasters minimize flying debris, reducing the likelihood of damaging nearby structures.

test blast animation
Photo courtesy
A test blast is performed on a concrete column in the RCA Victor Complex in Camden, N.J. The building was demolished in the summer of 1997.

To further reduce flying debris, blasters may wrap chain-link fencing and geotextile fabric around each column. The fence keeps the large chunks of concrete from flying out, and the fabric catches most of the smaller bits. Blasters may also wrap fabric around the outside of each floor that is rigged with explosives. This acts as an extra net to contain any exploding concrete that tears through the material around each individual column. Structures surrounding the building may also be covered to protect them from flying debris and the pressure of the explosions.

When everything is set up, it's time to get the show underway. In the next section, we'll find out what final steps the blasters must take to prepare for the implosion, and we'll look at the implosion itself. We'll also find out what can go wrong in explosive demolition and see how blasters evaluate the project once the smoke has cleared.

Becoming a Blaster
Brent Blanchard, an implosion expert with Protec Documentation Services, says that countless implosion enthusiasts ask him the very same question: "How can I become a blaster or demolition expert?" There is no "blaster school" or organized demolition instruction program in the world, Blanchard says, so the only way to become a demolition expert is learn on the job. Prospective blasters will work at an established blasting company until they know the field inside and out. Then, they can either stay on with their boss or venture out on their own and compete with the blasters who trained them.

Clients are understandably cautious about building implosion, and they tend to hire a demolition company based on the jobs it has pulled off in the past. For this reason, Blanchard says, it's very difficult for a young demolition firm to land major implosion jobs. Almost all major building implosions in the world are handled by about 20 well-established companies. In many of these companies, blasting is passed on from generation to generation. Parents teach their children the skills, and the children then raise little blasters of their own.