When it comes to innovation challenges, very few have stakes which are higher than saving people’s lives during wartime. Now that Syria has agreed to work with Russia and other countries to remove its chemical weapons stockpile, a new mobile laboratory can turn the dangerous chemicals into ones safe to be cleaned. Amazingly, it was created in only 20 weeks.


The mobile lab fits into 2 containers and can be operated by 15 people

A team of scientists working with the US Army at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Centre were approached in February as war in Syria was becoming more of a possibility. They were asked to develop a mobile laboratory which could process  the chemicals used in chemical weapons into safer materials, be transported anywhere in the world in two containers and be operated safely by a small team.

This became even more important a few weeks ago when it became apparent that not only did the Syrian army have chemical weapons, but that they might be using them against their own people.

The ECBC scientists managed the remarkable feat of developing the whole solution in record time, called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS). The working prototype was handed over to the US Military in June, having required only 13,000 man hours from 50 staff. The final solution is also very effective at reducing the chemicals into safer constituents, destroying 99.9 per cent of the toxic agent in a single given load, and can process 5 to 25 tonnes of CW per day, depending on the agent. It requires only water and some reagents like water, Sodium Hydroxide and bleach.

Most importantly, it can be set up in 10 days, needs only 15 people, and works on such Chemical Weapons as Sarin and mustard gas, both of which are believed to be in possession by Syria, breaking them into simpler, safer chemicals which can then be treated in existing industrial facilities.

So what makes such an innovation possible in record time:

  • Clear direction and limitations: When the engineers and scientists were given the challenge, they were given a very clear direction on what the solution needed to achieve and physical criteria. This meant that not only could the engineers begin design very quickly, every feature to be decided upon could be evaluated against the set criteria, saving time and effort.
  • Deep knowledge banks: Scientists working on the processes to destroy the chemicals decided to use an established chemical process called hydrolysis which would be effective for the reactions they needed, which works by heating the chemicals with water and reagents to break them down. This use of established processes in a new way meant that less time had to be used in developing and testing new processes.
  • Rapid Prototyping: The ECBC noted that rapid prototyping technology like 3D printing was vital in the quick production of small components to prototype the solution. It also enabled multiple different designs to be tested rapidly to find the most effective solution.

Its good to see innovations like this which will have a direct impact on the safety of people in such a dangerous area.

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