Pay dirt: Turn­ing deadly chem­i­cal agents into harm­less soil


De­stroy­ing chem­i­cal war­fare agents in bulk is a chal­lenge for the mil­i­tary and in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Cur­rent meth­ods of erad­i­ca­tion, such as in­cin­er­a­tion or hy­drol­y­sis, cre­ate toxic waste that re­quires fur­ther pro­cess­ing. And the lo­gis­tics re­quired to trans­port large stock­piles from stor­age to a dis­posal site can be risky and ex­pen­sive. Ad­di­tion­ally, dif­fer­ent types of chem­i­cals re­quire dif­fer­ent meth­ods to make them safe, so each agent re­quires a spe­cific neu­tral­i­sa­tion pro­ce­dure—one size doesn’t fit all. To ad­dress th­ese chal­lenges, DARPA has an­nounced the Ag­nos­tic Com­pact De­mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Chem­i­cal Agents (ACDC) pro­gramme.

The pro­gramme aims to de­velop tech­nolo­gies for a trans­portable, pro­to­type dis­posal sys­tem that con­verts any chem­i­cal war­fare agent into safe or­ganic com­pounds, such as harm­less soil, us­ing min­i­mal con­sum­ables in the process and cre­at­ing no hazardous waste. The sys­tem would en­able safe de­struc­tion of chem­i­cal stock­piles on site with­out need for trans­porta­tion.

“Chem­i­cal war­fare agents are made of deadly com­bi­na­tions of chem­i­cals that in their orig­i­nal, ba­sic con­stituent form were at one time a harm­less part of the en­vi­ron­ment,” said Tyler McQuade, DARPA Pro­gram Man­ager. “ACDC aims to de­velop tech­nolo­gies that re­verse the process and re­turn the chem­i­cal com­pounds to their safe, nat­u­ral state in the en­vi­ron­ment, with­out cre­at­ing hazardous waste in the process.”

Look­ing beyond cur­rent in­cin­er­a­tion meth­ods that can cre­ate acid rain as a by-prod­uct, and hy­drolytic meth­ods that re­quire large amounts of wa­ter, ACDC seeks new meth­ods that would al­low in­dige­nous ma­te­ri­als near a chem­i­cal weapons stor­age site any­where in the world to be used as scav­enger ma­te­rial to neu­tral­ize agents. Soil is plen­ti­ful in many places around the world and is en­vi­sioned as a main con­sum­able for a new neu­tral­i­sa­tion process.

“Sim­ply put, we want a new process that would take dirt, plant mat­ter, or what­ever is plen­ti­ful at the stor­age lo­ca­tion, mix it in with any chem­i­cal agent and get safe dirt or plant mat­ter out the back side that can be put back in the en­vi­ron­ment right at that lo­ca­tion, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing the cost of cur­rent meth­ods,” McQuade said.

The ACDC pro­gramme seeks ex­per­tise in ar­eas such as soil sci­ence, en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence/en­gi­neer­ing, chem­istry (an­a­lyt­i­cal, in­or­ganic, or­ganic, phys­i­cal), chemo­met­rics, process en­gi­neer­ing and con­trol sys­tem en­gi­neer­ing.

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