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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2007 / 04 

Researchers study decontamination of chemical, biological warfare agents

April 11, 2007

The U.S. Army Research Office has awarded Virginia Tech a $680,000 grant over two years to build an instrument that can be used to study the chemistry of gases that will decompose both chemical and biological warfare agents on surfaces.

John Morris of Blacksburg, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Science, will lead his research group of graduate students in building the surface science instrument. “The instrument will allow us to control pressures of various gases very precisely. We will be able to place different kinds of surfaces, different gases, and non-toxic mimics of various chemical warfare agents in the chamber,” said Morris.

Beyond building the instrument, Morris said that the objective is to develop a better understanding of chemical reactions that may be used to decompose toxic agents on surfaces. The focus will be on metal, metal-oxide, and polymeric surfaces. “We want to predict the fate of these gases when they fill a room, impinge on an electronic device, or flow over a surface of a coating,” he said.

Following the anthrax attacks of fall 2001, when a fine powder contaminated five offices in the Hart Senate Office Building, the U.S. Department of Defense discovered which gases could be used to kill the spores. Subsequent research has been done to identify compounds which will also decompose chemical warfare agents. “The Army wants compounds that will decompose both,” Morris said.

For several years, his group has been studying the surface chemistry of chemical and biological agents (using mimics) on organic and inorganic surfaces. They also study gas-surface interfaces, such as the gas-lung interface. The new project will build on their expertise in several areas to study the surface chemistry of highly reactive gases with surfaces that may be coated with deadly contaminants.

“While we may know that a warfare agent will decompose in the presence of a certain gas, little is known of the decomposition pathways on various surfaces. Chemical processes are different on a surface than in the bulk phase,” Morris said. “Other compounds and chemical structures introduce unexpected reactions and influences. Will the reactions compromise the integrity of important materials or coatings, or release unanticipated side products--possibly equally as toxic--back into the environment?”

Morris said that a complete understanding requires new studies aimed at the gas-solid interface. “This understanding will help in the development of decontamination strategies for particular surfaces while avoiding compounds that are harmful.”

Morris came to Virginia Tech in 1999. He developed a surface science instrumentation laboratory and received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and the Army Research Office Young Investigator Award in 2001, to do research on the reactions that occur at the boundary between two phases, such as gas and solid. He received his B.S. in 1991 from Aquinas College and Ph.D. in 1996 from the University of Notre Dame. He was a postdoctoral associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To learn more visit the Morris Group: Research Interests website.

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