Detecting chemical warfare agents
– New technology promises portability, safety –
By Brian Cross
Do good things really come in small packages? Graduate student Mohammed Abdul Kader Khan thinks so, and he’s hoping to prove it with a chemical sensing system that could one day allow military personnel, peacekeepers, security experts and civilians to detect minute concentrations of deadly chemical agents that can be used as weapons of mass destruction.
The system being developed in the Department of Chemistry by Khan and his research supervisor Bernie Kraatz, associate professor of chemistry, uses electro-chemical technology and is capable of detecting agents like nerve gas, mustard gas, liquid pesticides and other invisible chemicals at concentrations as small as 10 parts per billion. Current sensing devices use optical and light- sensing technology, but they are extremely expensive and portability is limited, said Kraatz. And, these existing systems can only detect chemical agents at concentrations of roughly 10 parts per million.
Khan’s work recently earned him the 2005-06 graduate research award from the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.
“As far as I know, there is no one else working with this kind of electro-chemical detection,” said Khan, who has been working on the project since January 2004. “I believe that we are the first.”
According to Kraatz, one of the major advantages of developing an electro-chemical detection system is portability. The synthesized chemical compounds that form the basis of Khan’s system can be applied to minuscule mediums such as electrodes the size of a human hair or gold-plated chips no larger than the head of a thumbtack. In theory, these mediums could then be incorporated into hand-held devices or remote sensors that detect gases and send a signal to a centralized alarm system.
Although the devices themselves have yet to be engineered, the enabling technology developed by Khan and Kraatz has been lab-tested and functions well in the air and when immersed in water.
“Right now we’re at the proof of principle stage,” said Kraatz, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Biomaterials. “We know the system works and we know what we can sense. The issue now is how to fabricate and engineer the device. The science is solid but the engineering might be a completely different issue.”
Kraatz is currently in the process of developing a contract with the Department of National Defence, which has expressed an interest in the technology. In the near future, he hopes to have a prototype system developed and ready for testing by DND military experts at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in southern Alberta.
When asked about the significance of his research, Khan listed enhanced public safety, the protection of peacekeeping forces, the enforcement of international non-proliferation treaties, the controlled destruction of chemical warfare agents, the identification and reduction of terrorist activities, and the monitoring of hostile nations suspected of conducting illegal research and stockpiling toxic chemicals.
“The necessity of the project is very obvious,” he said before going on to praise Kraatz and fellow researchers for creating a positive environment in the department. “I’ve always been interested in these types of things. Toxicity has always been at the centre of my research, so to study chemical warfare agents… that’s brilliant.”
Khan will travel to Ottawa in May to discuss his research with other scholars, military experts and practitioners in the field of non-proliferation and arms control. Details of his research will be published in the Simons Centre’s monograph series later this year.
Brian Cross is a Saskatoon freelance writer