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Holding Back Floodwaters With a Balloon

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Protecting Tunnels Against Disaster: A look at an inflatable device that could save tunnels from flooding. By HENRY FOUNTAIN Published: November 19, 2012

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With a few dull thuds, the one-ton bag of high-strength fabric tumbled from the wall of the mock subway tunnel and onto the floor. Then it began to grow.

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As air flowed into it through a hose, the bundle inflated until it was crammed tight inside the 16-footdiameter tunnel, looking like the filling in a giant concrete-and-steel cannoli.

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The three-minute procedure, conducted on a chilly morning this month in an airport hangar not far from West Virginia University, was the latest test of a device that may someday help guard real tunnels during disasters — whether a terrorist strike or a storm like Hurricane Sandy, whose wind-driven surge of water overwhelmed New York City’s subway system, shutting it down for days.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/science/creating-a-balloonlike-plug-to-hold-back-floodwaters.html?ref=science

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Creating a Balloonlike Plug to Hold Back Floodwaters - NYTimes.com

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“The goal is to provide flooding protection for transportation tunnels,” said John Fortune, who is managing the project for the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate. The idea is a simple one: rather than retrofitting tunnels with metal floodgates or other expensive structures, the project aims to use a relatively cheap inflatable plug to hold back floodwaters.

Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Hurricane Sandy brought 13-foot storm surge into the New York City's subway tunnels.

In theory, it would be like blowing up a balloon inside a tube. But in practice, developing a plug that is strong, durable, quick to install and foolproof to deploy is a difficult engineering task, one made even more challenging because of the pliable, relatively lightweight materials required.

“Water is heavy, there’s a lot of pressure,” said Greg Holter, an engineer with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who helps manage the project. “So it’s not as simple as just inflating and filling the space. The plug has to be able to withstand the pressure of the water behind it.” The idea has been in development for more than five years — this test was the 21st — and Dr. Fortune says there are at least a few more years of testing and design work ahead. If the plugs are shown to be effective, they will be made available to transit systems around the country; at least initially, they are expected to cost about $400,000 each.

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“We have frequent conversations with folks in mass transit agencies, the true experts in the field, on how this would be deployed,” Dr. Fortune said, although he declined to name specific agencies, citing the antiterrorism aspect of the project. Adam Lisberg, the chief spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York City’s transit systems, said the damage caused by the storm “is certainly going to focus our attention” on ways to protect the subways. “But it’s way too early to talk about any particular technology that’s been proposed,” he said. In all, seven of the city’s 14 under-river subway tunnels were flooded during the storm, as were several major highway tunnels. Dr. Fortune said that plugs might work for highway tunnels, too, but that the larger size of those tunnels created additional technical challenges that would have to be overcome.

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Work on the plug began in 2007, after Ever J. Barbero, a West Virginia professor whose specialty is the use of advanced materials in engineering, was contacted by a Homeland Security official looking for outside-the-box ideas on ways to keep a subway system from flooding if an underwater tunnel were breached — by a terrorist bomb, for example. “I didn’t know anything about this,” he said. “Then I found out what happened in Chicago.” Dr. Barbero was referring to a 1992 episode in which an abandoned freight tunnel under the Chicago River was breached by a crew sinking bridge pilings. That led to a flood that caused close to $2 billion in damage to downtown buildings as the water spread underground.

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Dr. Barbero came up with an idea and shared it with Homeland Security officials. “I said, ‘We’ll put an air bag in a tunnel,’ ” he recalled. The department was intrigued — officials http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/science/creating-a-balloonlike-plug-to-hold-back-floodwaters.html?ref=science

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Creating a Balloonlike Plug to Hold Back Floodwaters - NYTimes.com

12/5/12 10:58 AM

were familiar with European efforts to develop plugs to seal tunnels from gas and smoke after a series of deadly tunnel fires — and decided to finance the project. About $8 million has been spent so far. Dr. Barbero realized that the forces exerted on the pressurized plug, and the need to rely on friction against the tunnel walls to keep it in place under the onslaught of floodwaters, meant that it had to be made from very tough materials. Experts from ILC Dover, a company in Delaware that makes high-strength soft structures like spacesuits and the force-absorbing air bags used for some of the Mars rover landings, suggested fabric made from Vectran, a strong but lightweight yarn spun from a liquid-crystal polymer. But the first full-scale plug, made with a single layer of Vectran, failed during a pressure test in 2010. “It ripped right down the middle, from back to front,” Dr. Fortune said. So Dr. Barbero and ILC came up with a three-layer plug, with the outer layer consisting of woven Vectran belts. It is designed so that the tearing of one belt will not cause a catastrophic failure. 1

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 20, 2012, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Holding Back Floodwaters With a Balloon. SAVE

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Creating a Balloonlike Plug to Hold Back Floodwater