Airbag Inflation

The goal of an airbag is to slow the passenger's forward motion as evenly as possible in a fraction of a second. There are three parts to an airbag that help to accomplish this feat:

  • The bag itself is made of a thin, nylon fabric, which is folded into the steering wheel or dashboard or, more recently, the seat or door.
  • The sensor is the device that tells the bag to inflate. Inflation happens when there is a collision force equal to running into a brick wall at 10 to 15 miles per hour (16 to 24 km per hour). A mechanical switch is flipped when there is a mass shift that closes an electrical contact, telling the sensors that a crash has occurred. The sensors receive information from an accelerometer built into a microchip.
  • The airbag's inflation system reacts sodium azide (NaN3) with potassium nitrate (KNO3) to produce nitrogen gas. Hot blasts of the nitrogen inflate the airbag.

The airbag and inflation system stored in the steering wheel. See more car safety images.

Early efforts to adapt the airbag for use in cars bumped up against prohibitive prices and technical hurdles involving the storage and release of compressed gas. Researchers wondered:

  • If there was enough room in a car for a gas canister
  • Whether the gas would remain contained at high pressure for the life of the car
  • How the bag could be made to expand quickly and reliably at a variety of operating temperatures and without emitting an ear-splitting bang

The inflation system uses a solid propellant and an igniter.

They needed a way to set off a chemical reaction that would produce the nitrogen that would inflate the bag. Small solid-propellant inflators came to the rescue in the 1970s.

The inflation system is not unlike a solid rocket booster (see How Rocket Engines Work for details). The airbag system ignites a solid propellant, which burns extremely rapidly to create a large volume of gas to inflate the bag. The bag then literally bursts from its storage site at up to 200 mph (322 kph) -- faster than the blink of an eye! A second later, the gas quickly dissipates through tiny holes in the bag, thus deflating the bag so you can move.

Even though the whole process happens in only one-twenty-fifth of a second, the additional time is enough to help prevent serious injury. The powdery substance released from the airbag, by the way, is regular cornstarch or talcum powder, which is used by the airbag manufacturers to keep the bags pliable and lubricated while they're in storage.

Next, we'll look at some of the safety cautions associated with airbags, especially where children are concerned.