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Researchers say their new system to combat CBRN contamination may have other positive quality-of-life implications

By CHRIS DALBY, with BROOKS TIGNER

BRUSSELS – Despite its shrinking size and territory, terrorist threats from the Islamic State, also known as “Daesh” remain all too real in Western Europe, as the conventional bomb attacks on France and Belgium only too vividly illustrate. There is the worry in many policy circles, however, that Daesh’s next attack could be chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) in nature.

One EU-funded security research project aims to counter the effects of CBRN contamination and its dispersion in a novel way:  by using a fog composed of a neutralising solution to decontaminate affected areas. One positive side benefit is that the finished system could be deployed in the event of industrial pollution such as the accidental release of a hazardous chemical compound to help cleanse the air.

SECURITY EUROPE recently interviewed Jose Luis Perez-Diaz, project coordinator of the project known as “Device for large scale fog decontamination” or COUNTERFOG.

Perez-Diaz said COUNTERFOG tries to create a double effect. “One is to interact with the dispersal [agent] in the most efficient way to neutralise it, and the second effect is to simply make it go down [physically].” Thus, COUNTERFOG’s technology would first neutralise a chemical or biological agent and then bond to it, creating inert solid compound that could easily be cleaned up by decontamination services.

Among the project’s first objectives was to design, build and operate a “fog dynamics laboratory” to test the fog’s physical aspects, condensation and neutralisation properties and the suitability of decontaminants. With the lab’s completion, the core of the project’s work has focused on its second objective: to create a portable prototype dispersal system. The latter is close to completion, and its mobility will be based on a tracked-wheel system, much like that of a tank.

The prototype will thus be deployable inside buildings and for outdoor settings. Asked what solutions his team was investigating as a fog to counteract the different CBRN agents, Perez-Diaz would only say that all of the tests carried out so far were “done with surrogates” though research with real agents could be done after the project’s termination. He added, however, that “the ideal solution would be to have something that could be universal, [meaning] you wouldn’t have to think what kind of agent you are dealing with.”

COUNTERFOG’s main focus is on large scale fog decontamination to combat dispersed CBRN agents, but its test environment shows that the system could have other applications by removing air pollutants such as diesel or smoke. For example, to deal with ambient noxious chemical agents versus standard industrial pollutants, COUNTERFOG is developing a sensor to distinguish between them.

COUNTERFOG’s system is intended to be used in conjunction with other kinds of detectors such as fire protection equipment in buildings. If fitted with a smart detector and a particular antidote, the system could detect the sudden presence of dangerous chemical components in a building and inject the appropriate antidote into any fog solution it released.

The project’s next phase is to test its newly mobile system in an open environment. Here Perez-Diaz said they would stress test the system for conditions in the real world such as wind, rain, temperature fluctuations, etc. After the field tests, the research team will draw conclusions whether their system can be used to remove industrial pollution from the air.

     THE UPSHOT: A 48-month project launched in November 2013 with a total budget of EUR 4.4 million (EU contribution: EUR 3.4 m), COUNTERFOG is moving into its final year of testing. Depending on the system’s ability to self-deploy in hostile environments and its operational flexibility, the COUNTERFOG approach to decontamination would be a god-send to emergency responders who could move in quickly in a clearly delineated and decontaminated area following another Fukushima or Chernobyl-type disaster. Moreover, if its fog was able to convert any airborne contaminant into a collectible precipitate on the ground, this would have obvious safety and clean-up advantages, not to mention potentially large commercial potential.
     But there remains the issue of what the fog would be and whether it could deal with multiple agents. A single all-purpose fog-borne neutralising solution does not seem very realistic, meaning that COUNTERFOG would have to incorporate multiple solutions to deal with multiple threats, with all the implications for design, mobility and cost that entails. But perhaps the project’s researchers have something up their sleeve they’re not yet revealing…

     cd@securityeurope.info

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