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Anti-Earthquake Foam

Easily retrofittable protection for vulnerable buildings
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It seems the majority of earthquake casualties are caused by the collapse of older, fragile buildings lacking steel reinforcement. The *conventional* solution is to either knock them all down and build afresh or retrofit them with steel jackets. Naturally this is very expensive and time-consuming.

What I propose is the use of a rapidly expanding and hardening foam-like material, which could be stored in small containers no bigger than fire extinguishers distributed throughout the building, and connected to sensors monitoring the building's structural integrity. If there is an earthquake and the sensors detect the building is badly damaged an activation signal would be flashed to the dispensers. The active ingredients are mixed inside the dispensers, the taps would open and the foam expands quickly to fill the interior of the building and then solidify. The building would now be supported throughout its entire volume and prevented from collapsing.

Foam dispensers located around the top edge of a building would produce, as the foam expands and falls, a supportive pyramid preventing the entire building from keeling over sideways.

Naturally the foam would need to be, while strong, breathable so as not to suffocate those people immobilised within it. A lot like the "riot foam" which was used in the Judge Dredd comics to subdue angry mobs. Ideally it will also be transparent to help rescuers locate people.

The cost of installing these systems in vulnerable buildings would be much less than that of doing structural modifications because the dispensers and sensors could be mass produced. It might even find a wider market, such as security. Imagine such a system installed in a bank. In the event of a robbery not only do the alarms go off but also *whoosh!* ImmobilizoFoam floods the lobby and everyone is frozen in place until the police arrive.

Skinny Rob, Jun 20 2000

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       Something like this might be of more use in gas pipelines. It would be simple to build a small self-contained device with a five-year battery which could be dropped into inspection covers in gas pipelines. Then, whenever an accelaration switch is triggered (i.e. earthquake) or the ambient gas pressure drops (i.e. pipeline fracture), a bit of foam would be squirted out to block the pipe.
hippo, Jun 20 2000
  

       "I was doin' ok and all of a sudden the car turned into a cannole!"   

       John Sparton <Badly quoted and worse spelled from Demolition Man>
StarChaser, Jun 21 2000
  

       Actually, some buildings already use something of this sort in the form of water in the weight-bearing columns. Does the same job and doesn't need to be set off.   

       Writing from earthquake country, I remain, yr obdt svt --
wordmama, Jul 03 2000
  

       Suggest Yorkshire Pudding if very seismically concerned.
eehen, Jul 09 2000
  

       Let me get this straight: the foam is strong enough to hold up masonry walls, but is transparent and "breathable"? I'll stick with my personal airbag jumpsuit, thanks.
rmutt, Jul 22 2000
  

       A better solution to earthquakes is to prevent them altogether. This can indeed be done, and we even have both the knowledge and the technolgy to do it. HOWEVER....well, I'll get to that in a bit.   

       The trick to preventing earthquakes is to literally lubricate the fault line. This can be done by drilling wells all along the fault line, and INJECTING and withdrawing water, and again injecting and withdrawing water, continuously.. The pressure of the injected water causes rocks to crack, and the cracks and the water together let the rocks crush easily as the tectonic plates slide.   

       Obviously this is an expensive proposition. It will take a lot of deep wells to do this trick But is it less expensive than reparing damage across hundreds of square miles, plus loss of life? Based on certain geological data, and the historical record, I am willing to estimate that a really large quake in the Los Angeles area will cause a major portion of the city to simply slide into the sea. Major chunks of ancient Alexandria in Egypt, Lisbon in Portugal, and Port Royal in Jamaica, have done it. That would be a pretty expensive price for NOT lubricating the fault lines! Not to mention that L.A. is a major terminal and refining center for Alaskan crude oil -- what do you imagine would be the replacement costs for THAT?   

       The primary caveat, as hinted above, concerns the probability of setting off a significant quake, while beginning to lubicate a fault that has been locked for a century. The insurance companies would scream. But they will all go out of business, anyway, if we wait for the inevitable EVEN LARGER quake to occur naturally.
Vernon, Jul 24 2000
  

       Well, *I* like it a lot. It works for airplane crash protection, so why not buildings?   

       With the earthquake prevention part, we could just warn everyone, then set massive explosions in the major faults to trigger them and get it over with. Then we wouldn't have to just be waiting around all the time, and people could get on with their lives.
Bumpy, Nov 09 2000
  

       Runway foam doesn't prevent crashes or make them less severe. What it does is keep the plane from causing sparks to ignite the fuel from the wings, and make it easier to put any fires out.
StarChaser, Nov 09 2000
  

       Can the sensors also detect aircraft?
crimsonrose, Feb 14 2002
  

       What if we forget the breathing bit and just flood the building from the top down? This would give people time to move downwards...
RobertKidney, Feb 14 2002
  

       Can we make the foam edible, nutritous and hydrating? Else any people trapped in it would die of starvation. Then again, if people began to eat their way out, would it cause instabilities in the foam matrix, leading to collapse of the structure? Criminals could eat their way out too.
3m3rson, Apr 29 2002
  

       magic foam. boo.
sninctown, Jul 10 2006
  

       [StarChaser] If only I could bun your anno... wait that doesn't sound very nice...
MoreCowbell, Jul 11 2006
  
      
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