Chemical weapons are such dirty business that even the ground they touch needs to be specially processed before even the dirt is safe for people again. Chemical weapons are banned by treaties, though that hasn't stopped a few countries from maintaining stockpiles. Right now it's possible to clean up that mess, but it's a tremendous amount of work, and expensive work too. Yesterday at DARPA's demo day, where the military's blue-sky projects agency showed off its latest progress, I spoke to some of the team working on Agnostic Compact Demilitarization of Chemical Agents, or ACDC. Their goal: a machine that turns chemical-weapon-tainted soil into fertile soil, that can fit roughly in a shipping container, and is a fraction of the cost to process the chemicals today.
It's ambitious, but it's not without need. After chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war, the Syrian government, under international supervision, revealed their stockpile and turned it over to an international team. That team, using the U.S. Navy's Cape Ray ship, incinerated and neutralized tons of chemical agents over the better part of a year, while at sea. The cost was around $250 million.
Existing methods of neutralizing chemical agents, like mustard weapons or sarin gas, are very specific: one method per compound, using a lot of water, and yielding chemical compounds that still need to be refined further before they're safe. The DARPA team behind ACDC has an ambitious goal: make it so any chemical agent, combined with any soil, can be run through the process, leaving only usable soil as a by-product.
[Southwest Research Institute]'s approach combines a commercially available reforming-engine technology that, along with local soil, can convert organic molecules to non-hazardous components. The engine is designed such that, as part of the destruction process, the organic molecules act as a fuel and efficiently generate recoverable energy that can be converted to electricity. The SwRI process is agnostic to the chemical to be degraded, and is a much greener process than either conventional hydrolysis or incineration, both of which are logistically intensive and require subsequent secondary treatment of large amounts of hazardous waste.
The project is only nine months along. Next year, the team is hopeful they'll have a demonstration of the technology, and then, when the project's 36 months are up, they are aiming for a chemical cleaning tool just 1 percent as expensive as the Cape Ray mission. The cost of ACDC, if all goes according to plan, is expected to be just $2.6 million.