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Chemical weapons have been banned under international law since the 1990s, but many countries still hold on to pretty large stores of some of the deadliest agents known to man. Hundreds of Syrian civilian died in a gruesome attack in 2013, which prompted the intervention of international bodies in order to eliminate the country’s stockpiles. By August 2014, some 600 tonnes of chemical agents were destroyed aboard the US Navy container ship MV Cape Ray.
Destroying – or demilitarising – chemical weapons, however, is no easy task. “The Cape Ray did a great job achieving its objective, which was to demilitarize Syria’s chemical weapons,” said chemist and DARPA programme manager Dr Tyler McQuade. “The downside is, the weapons had to be transported a long distance, and we did the demilitarization on the Mediterranean. If anything had gone wrong, it could have been really horrible for the local environment.”
Hydrolysis, the procedure used to destroy chemical weapons, is tricky and dangerous. It produces large quantities of potent acids which need to be transported and disposed of in turn. McQuade has another solution, which he claims will be safer, cleaner, and simpler: burning the chemical agents and mixing whatever is left with soil.
“When you combust something at high enough temperatures, it breaks down into its constituent elements,” McQuade told Gizmodo. “We want to scavenge that exhaust and deposit those elements back on soil.”
Regular soil is a great absorbent. Gases from the atmosphere are naturally extracted and sequestered by clay and mineral mixture, and this process could be useful for chemical weapons as well. In his research, McQuade has shown that the complex molecules of chemical weapons (and similar materials) break down into simple gases when incinerated at high temperatures. Some of these gases could be extremely dangerous if released into the air, but storing them in soil provides a clean and effective solution.
“Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents,” as the concept is called, supposedly leaves no toxic waste, and the setup for operation is simple and straightforward. One of “McQuade’s set ups, a waste-to-energy engine, could run its electrical systems entirely off the power generated during combustion,” Gizmodo reports.
Now, McQuade and his team are studying how stable the sequestering is. “There is nothing that won’t eventually leach out in water,” he said. “But we want it to be on a time frame that’s consistent with natural processes.”
First field test of the procedure are scheduled for spring of 2017. If they’re successful, this could revolutionise how we get rid of chemical weapons.