MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Travel through transportation system tunnels could become safer, thanks to the work of West Virginia University researchers.

The researchers from WVU's College of Engineering and Mineral Resources have designed a giant inflatable airbag they believe has the potential to seal off tunnels to help prevent the spread of smoke, toxic fumes, gases or flooding should there be a fire or breach in a transportation system. In August, they demonstrated their design in the Washington, D.C., Metro system.

"The test in Washington was exciting and included a number of high-level officials," said WVU civil and environmental engineering professor Julio Davalos, who is responsible for the concept design. "We're grateful to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for allowing us access to their system and for working closely with us to help ensure the demonstration's success."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is funding the project in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Transportation Security Administration.

The idea of the airbag had been contemplated a decade before by European developers but had never been tested. WVU's team did just that, and they are now working on honing the design based on what they've learned. The final product is expected to be a fully workable design that can be incorporated into transportation systems.

Ever Barbero, chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at WVU, is overseeing the project's modeling and simulation work. He noted the multidisciplinary nature of the project and the dedication of the team in taking the idea to testing in less than a year.

"To take something that had never been tested before and to work to successfully define the right type of fabric and proper design, get it developed and demonstrate it successfully in a real-world, public way in such a short time frame is impressive," Barbero said. "The entire team - faculty, graduate students and partners - are to be commended."

Other WVU team members include mechanical and aerospace engineering professors Larry Banta, who is overseeing the sensory system design; Kenneth Means, mechanical design; and Wade Huebsch, fluid dynamics.

The project is being coordinated by postdoctoral researcher Javier Martinez in collaboration with technicians Jared Grim and David Turner and assistant Sandie Moody.

Graduate students (and their hometowns) include Christopher Griffin of Toms River, N.J.; William Sasher of Herndon, Va.; Joshua Sill of Cowen; Derrick Morgan of Ridgeley; and Juan Cruz of Cordoba, Argentina.