Computational model to predict the motion and movement of munitions underwater


By Jennifer Matthews

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State have received a $354,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program to develop and utilize a three-dimensional (3D) computational model that will predict the motion and movement of munitions – such as bullets and bombs – underwater. 

“Within the United States, we have a lot of training grounds and shooting ranges at military bases, and there are a lot of munitions left on the range,” said Xiaofeng Liu, assistant professor of civil engineering. “These pose a threat to the environment because there could be toxic elements and also pose a safety hazard to the military personnel and the general public.”

Historically, these unexploded ordnances (UXOs) are difficult to clean up because of their mobility. They move with ocean currents and coastal flows, and they can be buried into seabeds or re-exposed during storms.

“This is not a new problem,” Liu said. “Military agencies have been looking at this problem since the 1960s.”

The problem with past research is that while many projects have performed field observations and lab testing, there wasn’t enough computational power to fully model all aspects of UXO migration. Since many of the physical processes that contribute to munition movement co-exist in underwater environments and are often coupled with each other, modeling that neglects any of these processes is likely to yield results with a large margin of error.

Liu, along with Tong Qiu, associate professor of civil engineering, plan to use modern computational methods to develop a more comprehensive model that considers all the physical processes that contribute to the motion and fate of underwater munitions, both in the water and beneath the sediment bed. Turbulent flow, sediment transport, pore pressure, granular sediment behavior and rigid body motion will all be analyzed. In addition, liquefaction of sediment will be considered.

“The key questions we want to answer are, can we predict the motion of these UXOs, and, if so, where can we find them?” Liu said.

The result will be a 3D computational model and a large set of simulation data that will provide a better understanding of munition movement. These results can then be integrated into stochastic models or expert systems and can be used to evaluate site conditions and help make more informed decisions about the proper cleanup of underwater munitions.

“This research is so important because it's at the forefront of our capability to deal with a problem of such complexity; it involves so many fundamental physical processes,” said Liu. “We have to use all the tools that we have.”

Once finished, the model will not only help solve underwater munition movement problems but also model processes that are common in the civil and environmental engineering practice such as offshore anchoring systems and sediment-pipeline interaction.

The 3-year project is set to begin May 1.


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Jennifer matthews

“The key questions we want to answer are, can we predict the motion of these UXOs, and, if so, where can we find them?” Liu said.


Xiaofeng Liu

Tong Qiu



The Penn State Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, established in 1881, is internationally recognized for excellence in the preparation of undergraduate and graduate engineers through the integration of education, research, and leadership.

Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

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The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-1408

Phone: 814-863-3084