How do you design a toothbrush that prison inmates can't fashion into a shiv? National Public Radio's Weekend Edition on Saturday had a fascinating interview with Paul Biermann, an engineer at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, who has done just that:
In prisons, almost anything can be fashioned into a weapon. Razor blades, toothbrushes, padlocks and even bucket handles have been used in U.S. prisons as lethal weapons. While some prisons have replaced toothbrushes with three-inch versions that slide onto a fingertip, others stick with more traditional, cost-efficient products. Paul Biermann, an inventor at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, thinks that altering the molecular properties of everyday toiletries can make them functional, normal-size — and harmless.At his lab in Laurel, Md., Biermann and a team of engineers have been working on a toothbrush that can't be filed down or melted. After rejecting several designs — including a toothbrush with a hollow handle filled with plastic balls — the team invented a system using polyurethane, reinforced with a tightly wound paper product that by itself is not usable as a weapon if removed. Biermann's design is clever, and the story is a great reminder of the role that universities can play in helping manufacturers tackle difficult problems.