The soda can–sized detonators used in Fat Man during the Manhattan Project evolved into more efficient EBWs that are safer and no larger than the tip of a thumb. Even though the EBW design is still the go-to for most industries in the world, the Lab strives to improve upon the safety and reliability of its products.
Recent detonator technology has steered toward exploding foil initiation, or slappers. EBWs and slappers rely on similar physics—an electrical charge to vaporize material, a shockwave to ignite the explosive. However, the slapper is easier to manufacture, smaller, and safer than the EBW. Each slapper is handmade at the Laboratory using thin sheets of insulating film and gold foil. Although slappers have become the new standard, and Detonator Production continues to produce and improve this technology, we also are designing production processes for the detonators of the future.
One technology currently under development by the Lab’s design agency is the optical detonator. Unlike its predecessors, the optical detonator is based on laser initiation rather than an electrical pathway. The optical detonator removes the ever-present hazard posed by electrical initiation, instead using radiation at a specific wavelength to set off the detonator. This specificity reduces the risk of accidental detonation, bringing us closer to a “lock-and-key” model of security for our weapons.
In addition to this added safety, the overall design of optical detonators is smaller because the high-voltage electrical source is no longer necessary. This allows us to further reduce the size of our already miniature detonators.