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Posted 12/9/2016

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By Stacy Tennison
U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Public Affairs

Scientists at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center are currently conducting research to help solve issues in the Army’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear decontamination operations. Dr. Chris Warner and Dr. Victor Medina of ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory in Vicksburg, Mississippi, recently presented their research on CBRN clean up at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Decontamination Research and Development Conference.

The Army currently has no capability to treat or recycle the effluent from its water-based CBRN decontamination operations.
CBRN agents exist due to wartime activities, industry and advances in science. The danger in these highly toxic substances does not solely exist in the moment of use. Cleaning up, or decommissioning, these agents in a safe way has proven to be a logistical and safety burden. Decontamination following a CBRN event requires a large amount of water and creates large amounts of highly-contaminated waste water. This contaminated waste water, or effluent, is dangerous to the Warfighter, local populations and the environment.

Effluent creates logistical issues when it comes to storage, transportation and eventual treatment; additionally, it is a liability until the final treatment or disposal. There is a great need for a technology that will safely decommission water-based CBRN decontamination while reducing logistical issues and liabilities.

“We are seeking a solution to something that hasn’t been addressed before. Currently, there is no solution for addressing contaminated effluent from decontamination. ERDC has taken the lead in solving this challenging problem, and we have the expertise to develop effective solutions,” said Medina.

Medina’s research team is focusing on deployable water treatment of contaminated effluent. Warner’s team is determining how synthetic biology could be used to decommission hazardous materials, along with assessing potential for misuse and methods for addressing that issue.

Medina’s team has been working for the past two years on a technology to treat CBRN effluent, but experimenting on and evaluating technologies developed for treating this contaminated water is difficult because of the CBRN agents’ toxic nature. The ERDC worked to fill the knowledge gaps by providing a preliminary estimate for the exact composition of the material for the range, type and approximate concentration of materials likely to be found in decontamination effluent, while also providing several potential simulant chemicals to enable development of a surrogate CBRN effluent for safe laboratory evaluation of proposed treatment technologies.

After developing suitable surrogate materials to safely simulate the contaminants to be removed, Medina and his team developed a pilot scale reactor of a nuclear decommissioning effluent treatment system that can treat virtually anything and minimize DECON water requirements. This treatment system is quick and easy to deploy and maintain, greatly reducing logistical issues and liabilities.

“Water is something we need and the resources are becoming hard to come by. It’s often challenging to get water sources into theatre,” said Medina. “Our goal is to treat, reuse or recycle the water for military readiness, and we hope the technology created will have spin-off value to solve water problems that exist in U.S. communities.”

An open house is planned for key stakeholders Jan. 10, 2017, at ERDC-Vicksburg.

In the coming months, the team will demonstrate the pilot reactor’s individual components, culminating in a final demonstration in 2018.

Warner’s team is tackling the issue of contamination clean up in an entirely different way by combining engineering and biology – not something normally thought of together, except perhaps in science fiction movies. Today’s scientific advances employ unprecedented techniques that push biological restraints in order to engineer living cells. The impact of this powerful new technology has the potential to greatly improve environmental health and safety, including remediation of CBRN and effluent; however, synthetic biology is still a rudimentary science, and genetic engineering is a potential threat without proper regulating governance.

Is it possible to safely control gene drives and transgenes? Is it possible to assess environmental impact? Will it be possible to remove engineered genes from environments to return to baseline conditions? Warner and his team are working to quantify the potential environmental impacts associated with synthetic biology technologies by providing testing protocols to assess safety. They will also develop more rigorous regulations to monitor potential threats and reduce risk.

In August 2016, Warner and his team were granted this four-year program to assess the environmental impact of synthetic biology through the ERDC Environmental Quality/Installations.

“Our ultimate goal is to have decision guidance for organizations or companies wanting to do this type of research. We want to provide guidance criteria and testing procedures regulating release and approval,” Warner said. “Providing these cutting-edge tools makes these advances scientifically-defensible and ensures the research and development is safe for new technologies as we work toward our goal of creating a safer, better world.”