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Release: June 12, 2000

UI engineer receives NATO grant to internationalize auto airbag study

IOWA CITY, Iowa --- A University of Iowa engineer has received a $23,500 grant from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that may add international expertise to his efforts to design safer airbags for cars and trucks.

P. Barry Butler, professor and chair of mechanical engineering in the UI College of Engineering, says that the goal of the two-year grant is to provide funding for international collaboration in the fields of ignition and combustion of solid-fuel propellants. So far, plans call for a June 24-27 meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany. Future meetings will be held in Iowa City and Novosibirisk, Russia among seven researchers -- four from Russia, one from Italy, one from Germany and one (Butler) from the United States. Butler says that he expects his research into airbags, which inflate by burning solid-fuel propellants, will benefit from the exchange.

"The Russians, especially, are very good scientists with 20-30 years experience in working on combustion of solid propellants," says Butler, himself an expert in solid rocket propellants. "From their work on solid-fuel rockets, they have knowledge that other Western countries don't have."

Butler noted that NATO has a secondary purpose, in addition to research, in enlisting the expertise of Russian scientists. "NATO wants to link scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union with Western countries in order to expose them to research and business opportunities. It's a chance to get them connected to competitive markets, rather than military applications, which will make for a healthier environment," he says.

Butler, along with UI mechanical engineering professor and colleague L.D. Chen, has studied passenger-side airbags for much of the past decade under a General Motors grant funded through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. One of the main goals of their work is to better understand the physics of how auto airbags inflate so that they can help other researchers design safer airbags for new cars and trucks. Although passenger-side airbags have saved many lives, they have also been involved in the injury and death of some infants, children and small adults. Preliminary findings by Butler and Chen have shown that reducing the amount of propellant used and installing an aspirator behind the dashboard to add air to the bag and compensate for the reduced propellant may provide protection for a wider range of occupant size and seating positions.