As an organic chemist, I have to take at least some blame for my predecessors who decided to develop chemical weapons. As with most human endeavors, It started out innocently enough. Earlier this century, a German named Fritz Haber tried to develop a process for making fertilizer, only to find his process being used to make explosive nitrates. Attempts by chemists to find effective insecticides were successful – a little too successful, as the research led to incredibly dangerous nerve toxins and gases. It was a case of natural evolution – once the knowledge of the chemistry was out (and it’s hard to keep these things a secret), things progressed rapidly until multiple countries were sitting on piles of extremely toxic poisons and toxins.
Thankfully, our government eventually realized that chemical weapons were unnecessary, that our nuclear deterrent was sufficient to protect the country. The problem is that not only does our government have stockpiles of these nerve gases and toxins that need to be safely destroyed, but that the knowledge is out there. Other governments and militant groups now possess the ability to produce and stockpile these weapons. Military research began to take a different path, and started investigating methods of safely neutralizing chemical weapons. These methods would not only be useful for disposing of our own stockpiles, but also for dealing with a potential future attack after which a large area would need to be cleaned and decontaminated.
Current methods of decontamination have serious limitations. Bleach, chlorine dioxide, and sodium hydroxide methods are not only incredibly toxic by themselves, but they can react with the chemical weapon agents to form new materials which are also toxic. A new approach was needed, one which was safe and non-toxic, and which would effectively destroy a large number of these nerve agents and poison gases. Thankfully, recent research published by military scientists in the journal Industrial Engineering and Chemistry Research gives hope that this goal has now been obtained. Blends of safe, “green” chemicals have been developed and proved to be effective. They’re calling the cleaners “Decon Green”.
The primary ingredients in these materials are peroxides and bicarbonates. Each is relatively nontoxic by itself, but when mixed together in water, the two materials form peroxyanions (because of the basicity of the bicarbonate) which are very aggressive and reactive and which can break down just about any chemical weapon structure. These materials were extensively tested and were shown to be effective against anthrax, VX poison gas, GD agents (Soman, etc) as well as HD weapons (mustard gas and its derivatives). The materials are effective without the need for heating; simply mixing with water forms the active cleaning agent. The Decon Green cleansers were effective over a wide temperature range, and instead of simply diluting the toxic agent or reacting with it to form equally dangerous byproducts, the cleaners extensively broke down the chemical structures and rendered them harmless.
As someone who’s worked in the organic chemistry field for 15 years, I’m happy that our skills are now being put towards more peaceful purposes. It signifies the transition to a more enlightened period, one which – hopefully – will be less about inflicting injury, and more about avoiding harm.
The source of this article can be found at:
Wagner, G.W., et al. “All-weather hydrogen peroxide-based decontamination of CBRN contaminants”. Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, 2010, 49, 3099-3105.