Science and Technology News

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Neutralizing The Threat Of Chemical Warfare, One “Inator” At A Time


In with the good and out with the bad.

Our lungs (and yoga teachers) are masters of this concept.  Filtering the useful things and expelling the bad.  There’s little that can take the place of our lung filtration, but even our highly-functioning biological machines need a little help every now and then  (see: gas mask).

The problem is that even our most effective of ventilation devices aren’t all-powerful (although they do make for wonderfully creepy Doctor Who episodes).  That’s because, frankly, it’s a bit of a challenge to neutralize hazardous things into something that won’t, you know, injure/kill you.

And to this the Naval Research Laboratory is saying “challenge accepted”.

NRL is looking to make our air cleaner, better, and less hostile thanks to the reactive and catalytic air purification materials and catalytic self-decontaminating materials they’ve created  to combat hazardous materials.

Makes sense right?  Okay, well my work here is done…

Oh all right, at first it didn’t make sense to me, either.  So let’s break that down (Ah?  Break it down?  Oh you’ll think that’s funny later)

So, the self-decontaminating and air purification technologies are essentially two approaches to the same idea.  Basically, this technology aims to remove something that is undesirable – whether that be a gas or a liquid – and then convert that undesirable compound into something that would be more desirable.

As in, less toxic.

So let’s say you have a building in which there’s a lot of ammonia generated.  A restroom for example.  Part of the smell you get is ammonia from urine.  For that type of regular environment (as in for gas filtration), this technology would act as a filter that could actually remove ammonia and convert it to something else.  This is unlike a carbon that would just absorb it and hold onto it until maximum capacity was reached (yuck) rendering it useless at that point.

The difference is that this technology that NRL is developing will actually keep working.

So how does that affect the troops?  Well first of all, if you have to ask that you’ve likely never had to clean a latrine.  Or didn’t get in trouble often enough to do that.  Either way, it’s more than just the emotional scar tissue of Simple Green that makes me think this air purifier/decontaminator is a good idea.

I can practically smell it from the picture. *shudder*

And that’s where Dr. Brandy White comes in.

Dr. White is a research chemist for the Center for Bio/Molecular Science & Engineering at the US Naval Research Laboratory.  Among her many specialties, Dr. White is working on making this technology work for the service men and women everywhere, and we’re not talking about a bathroom air freshener.

“In the military, gas mask technology currently is based on carbon,” Dr. White explains.  “So essentially what happens is you absorb [the bad chemicals] into the carbon until all the capacity is used up, and then it stops absorbing.  Also carbon doesn’t absorb everything equally well.”

And because mediocrity and ineffectiveness isn’t really an ideal choice, Dr. White is working toward an alternative to our love affair with carbon.

“So the kind of sorbents that I’m trying to make are intended to incorporate reactivity that would grab targets that you usually wouldn’t catch using carbon.  They’re intended to give you something beyond one-to-one interaction,” she says.

Essentially, this technology can take an element – ammonia let’s say – and process it into something else less offensive.  Or just plain less obnoxious (take my ammonia!  Please!).  The decontaminator would then be then be ready to process more ammonia after it had already neutralized the nasal threat.  Basically, you you could keep using the decontaminator for a much longer period of time

More effective, more longevity, and it sounds like the thing a super villain would use to take over a metropolis (anything with an “inator” at the end = comic book super device).  I’d say that’s pretty cool.  And it makes sense, too.

“The first goal is to see the improvement in the technology that is available for gas masks and respiratory protection,” said Dr. White.  “Then the second thing that we’re really excited for is the potential for incorporation of the photo catalytic sorbents into next generation protective garments.  This is so you can extend exposure of the warfighter to toxic compounds.  Not to replace MOPP gear, but more of the idea of making it less necessary to don MOPP gear under all circumstances, and making situations more survivable without the need for that extreme action.”

The NRL scientists like Dr. White are not just attempting a novel approach to air purification, but also protective fabrics and protective surfaces.  For example, self-decontaminating fabrics or services.    Clothes smart enough to clean themselves?  Oh how cool would that be?

“Whether that be a garment or a tent structure or the hood or a car, [when] the target when it comes in contact it is rapidly sequestered, so a person can’t come in contact with it anymore,” says Dr. White.  “That allows times for the catalytic process to occur.  So while it might not be destroyed immediately on contact, it’s sequestered on contact and broken down into something that’s non-toxic.”

Now, this doesn’t mean you can just scotch guard your weekend wear with this decontaminator and poof!  You’re chemical-agent proof.  This is more of an augmentation, so if you have a garment that’s protective already and you can add this to it, it would enhance that protective capability.

And this kind of enhancement is something the troops could really use.  “Most of the things that are available to the warfighter currently don’t do what we’re talking about.  Most of the protective garments just capture the target and then hold onto it.  And then you need to throw that garment away, or further decontaminated with further processing steps.  And we’re trying to get around that. “

Neutralizing the threat of chemical warfare one “inator” at a time.  That’s just how NRL rolls.

You know, this might be something we can log away for future use when we encounter an alien species.

Hey, don’t laugh!  You don’t know what kind of biological incompatibility they could have with us.  Haven’t you people read War of the Worlds?  I’m just saying, when the Martian plague descends upon humanity you’re going to thank your lucky stars that NRL thought of this stuff ahead of time.

I’ve already preordered my decontamination clothes.  In TARDIS blue, of course.

Want to learn more about this technology?  This and this should shed light on the subject.

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Information for this story provided by Dr. Brand White, Research Chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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