This story is over 5 years old.

A New, Old Way To Defend Against Chemical Weapons

A rediscovered compound beats anything going for neutralizing nerve agents. It might do the same for atmospheric carbon.
May 27, 2014, 11:31pm

Image: Syrian soldier/Wiki

There’s no precise figure for how many chemical weapons are currently stockpiled across the globe. Among the seven nations that have declared chemical weapons—Albania, India, Iraq, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America—there were some 73,000 metric tons of chemical agents on hand at the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1999, and the number has dropped 80 percent since then. That leaves some 15,000 tons, but the weapons tracked by the CWC don’t include those held by non-signatory nations like Angola, North Korea, Egypt, and South Sudan, or those that aren’t held by states at all.

The CWC is a fairly amazing accomplishment, just given that the above four nations are the only four not participating in the wholesale destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities. That said, it doesn’t take much chemical weapons to bring about widespread brutality, and the CWC’s fact sheet points out that, “a tiny drop of a nerve agent, no larger than the head of a pin, can kill an adult human being within minutes after exposure.” In other words, defense is still a critical part of the chemical weapons equation; all it takes for many nerve agents to kill is the slightest bit of skin exposure.

A new Oregon State University study is advertising this week the identification of perhaps the most versatile chemical weapon counter-measure yet. Polyoxoniobates are part of a class of molecule first discovered nearly 200 years ago, with applications ranging from environmentally-friendly wood bleaching to tumor suppression, but have just now been identified as a means to degrade and destroy many common nerve agents. While it wouldn’t be the first such compound, it appears to be far more stable than current lines of organic counter-agents, while besting its inorganic kin in ability to adhere to fabrics and other surfaces. It works both dissolved in water and just on its own.

That last bit may be a very big deal. The latest generation of organophosphate nerve agents, developed by the Soviet Union until its demise in the early 1990s, are designed to infiltrate chemical protective gear. A stable, lasting coating could make all the difference. The so-far untested hope is that polyoxoniobates will be able to withstand hot, arid environmental conditions for extended periods of time.

Nerve gas decontamination/OSU

The thing about most nerve agents is that they really last, potentially lingering as an oil-like coating across huge areas of land for long periods of time. It’s not enough to just wait for rain or take a hose to a contaminated surface. That’s like trying to wash a greasy pan with plain cold water. The new compound doesn’t so much wash away nerve agents as force chemical reactions with them, degrading the nerve agent to the point of harmlessness.

Finally, the authors point out that polyoxoniobates might be utilized to similar effect with carbon, sequestering the CO2 released by dirty power plants into new, harmless compounds. Cool, but that might also just say something profound about those power plants in the very first place.