A peacekeeping force becomes the target of an unruly crowd. Instead of using bullets, the soldiers respond by shooting a sticky, taffy-like foam that erects a gooey barrier between them and the crowd.
Games in a prison gym erupt into violence. Suddenly, the fighting inmates find themselves isolated in a sea of thick soap bubbles, unable to see or hear.
No, these are not scenes plucked from the pages of comic books. The foam, bubbles and other kinds of non-lethal weapons are real-life, and they may be coming to a police department, prison or military base near you.
Although developed for security at America’s federal laboratories, non-lethal weapons are being eyed as possible tools for police, correctional officers and soldiers.
Private companies also might find other commercial uses for such non-lethal materials, according to Dennis Miyoshi, director of the Nuclear Security Systems Center at Sandia National Laboratories.
Research on non-lethal weapons has been going on for two decades at Sandia, the Department of Energy’s lead laboratory for government security issues.
Sticky foam is a tacky, non-hardening thermoplastic material slightly more dense than water. It expands 35 to 50 times after being sprayed and adheres to a human. It can immobilize a person because his arms or legs can stick together, and he can stick to anything he touches--such as the floor.
Aqueous foam, which looks like soap with big bubbles, keeps people from seeing and deadens sound.
Miyoshi believes non-lethal weapons can provide police, prison guards and soldiers with an option short of deadly force. But he said there are other uses.
For example, Miyoshi said, sticky foam could protect a safe. He said an unauthorized person would trigger a release of the foam onto the safe, making it hard to break into as the sticky substance clung to everything.
Sandia is investigating possible uses of non-lethal weapons for the National Institute of Justice, which funds research on behalf of law enforcement.
The institute wanted to find out whether sticky foam could be useful in immobilizing uncooperative prisoners. It ended the project after determining that the substance “was not as effective in prison scenarios as they would like,” Miyoshi said.
Sticky foam takes a minute or two to reach the tacky stage, which the institute judged as too long.
But Miyoshi said when the Pentagon equipped some Marines in Somalia with non-lethal weapons earlier this year, it borrowed the NIJ’s sticky foam guns: metal cylinders between 3 feet and 4 feet long with a valve to release the foam.
Although the Marines didn’t use the sticky foam, Miyoshi said the U.S. military’s role has expanded from fighting wars to peacekeeping, and since the idea in peacekeeping is to keep casualties down, the military needs such alternatives.
Sandia scientists will finish a study for the institute on aqueous foam in the fall. The Justice Department is interested in the potential for quelling riots or removing contentious prisoners, Miyoshi said.