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Neutral Agents

BY LINDA BAKER

The best defense against chemical weapons is eliminating them altogether.

next-chemBY LINDA BAKER

The best defense against chemical weapons is eliminating them altogether. Barring that, soldiers — and civilians — might take heart from new research coming out of Oregon State University demonstrating the ability of certain compounds to break down nerve agents such as sarin gas. The compounds, small bits of metal oxide called polyoxoniobates, are inorganic, so they won’t degrade in harsh environmental conditions — like the desert in war-ravaged Syria, the site of chemical-weapons attacks this past year. Polyoxoniobates also work “catalytically,” meaning “they can do this over and over again,” says May Nyman, an associate professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science. Nerve agents penetrate clothing and skin, and are invisible and impossible to control, Nyman adds. “So you need something always to be degrading it.” To address this challenge, the U.S. Department of Defense is developing smart fabrics and smart suits to protect warfighters against possible hazards. “They haven’t necessarily identified the specific molecules that will go into these suits, but they are working on the concept and the best fabric to use,” says Nyman, whose work is supported by the DOD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Polyoxoniobates may also absorb carbon dioxide, rendering them useful as power plants look for new ways to scrub greenhouse gas emissions. “What’s useful for degrading nerve agents may also be applied to pollutants,” Nyman says.

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