Los Alamos National Labs with logo 2021

The explosives issue

After 76 years in business, we know a thing or two about things that go “boom.”
December 12, 2019
An explosives test taking place in a canyon on LANL property.

In February 2018, an explosives experiment at the Lab’s Lower Slobbovia firing site provided data that helped validate calculations in a subsequent experiment at the Lab’s Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility. The test object for this experiment contained pyrophoric materials similar to those found in some fireworks.CREDIT: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Isaac Martinez


“The Laboratory has been in the explosives business since Day 1.”- Bob Webster

By Bob Webster, Deputy Laboratory Director for Weapons

Project Y, the Los Alamos branch of the Manhattan Project, began taking shape on Northern New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau in February 1943. Just 29 months later, the scientists who’d been secretly transported to Los Alamos had created the world’s first atomic device.

In other words, the Laboratory has been in the explosives business since Day 1. The successful implosion weapons of the Trinity Test (pictured below) on July 16, 1945, and the Nagasaki mission on August 9, 1945, used detonators to ignite explosives that compressed a plutonium core (pit). If you’ve never seen a 1940s-era detonator, click here to learn more about these tiny devices and why they are so devilishly difficult to make.

A black and white picture of the Trinity test.

On the morning of July 16, 1945, Manhattan Project scientists conducted a test that proved the feasibility of weaponizing energy from the atom. Trinity, as the test was known, was the detonation (pictured) of the “Gadget”—the world’s first atomic device—near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Our explosives work comes with very strict safety and environmental regulations that we are eager to comply with. Operating a weapons laboratory while respecting the environment is something we’ve been doing for decades. High-explosives scientist David Chavez took this to heart with his invention of BOM, a “green” explosive more powerful than TNT but much healthier for the environment—not just in Northern New Mexico but around the world. Click here to learn more.

Our last feature article in this issue of National Security Science highlights how augmented reality can protect warfighters, specifically, explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) technicians, who dismantle improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Thanks to augmented reality technology developed at Los Alamos, EOD techs can train using virtual IEDs, which makes for a much safer learning environment.

So, whether we are maintaining the detonators, pits, and other components of U.S. nuclear weapons or determining what’s inside someone else’s bomb, Los Alamos scientists are among the best explosives scientists in the world. By working hard to support our national security mission, we have helped keep the peace for more than 76 years, and we are confident we’ll help keep the peace for another 76 years or more.

A portrait of Bob Webster.

Bob Webster, Deputy Laboratory Director for Weapons.

A letter in which Enrico Fermi describes the observations he made at the Trinity test on 16 July 1945.

Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi describes the Trinity Test. This document is preserved in the Laboratory’s National Security Research Center.