CONTACT: GARY GALLUZZO
100 Old Public Library
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 384-0009; fax (319) 384-0012
Release: August 5, 1999
Team of UI engineers studies physics of
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A team of University of Iowa engineers
is studying how conventional airbags work in order to help researchers design
safer airbags for new cars and trucks.
P. Barry Butler and L.D. Chen, professors of mechanical
engineering and project co-principal investigators, are in the final year
of a three-year, $369,000 General Motors grant funded through the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Chen says that the primary goal of
the UI project is to understand the physics of auto airbags.
"We want to find parameters that can be used to describe
the airbag inflation process. By knowing how current airbags inflate, automotive
engineers can design futuristic airbags," Chen said.
The UI project is focused on the characteristics of
passenger-side airbags, which in the past have saved many lives; however,
passenger-side airbags have also been involved in the injury and death of
some infants, children and small adults. Working in their UI College of Engineering
laboratory, the research team, led by Butler and Chen, tested conventional
airbags for characterization of airbag deployment and inflating processes.
Preliminary findings show that at least two modifications
may enhance airbag safety, according to Butler, project leader and an expert
in solid rocket propellants. First, reducing the amount of propellant used
could lessen the explosive force with which airbags inflate. Also, in order
to maintain the amount of gas needed to inflate the bag, an aspirator could
be installed behind the dashboard to compensate for reduced propellant by
sucking air into the bag.
Today, some so-called "smart" airbags available in
new cars are able to perform such tasks as evaluating the weight of the passenger
and adjusting the force of inflation accordingly. However, Butler noted that
the ideal airbag may be many years in development because it is difficult
to take into account all possible passenger variables. For example, a smart
airbag should be able to determine whether an adult, a child, or a child seat
is occupying the passenger seat and where that occupant is located, with respect
to the dashboard, and modify its explosive force. In the meantime, Butler
noted that he plans to continue the project for many years in the hope that
it will further the cause of automobile safety.
"Our goal is to develop a set of diagnostics showing
the airflow into and out of an aspirating, or air-breathing, airbag. The aspirating
airbag is being considered as an alternative to conventional airbags while
better airbags are being designed," Butler said.