Professor works to nuetralize chemical stockpiles around the country

Dr. Christopher C. Landry in UVM’s chemistry department has been working with porous silica since he came to the University in 1996. Landry recently received close to 500 thousand dollars in grant money from the United States Department of Defense and the University work on developing a method do safely neutralize stockpiles of chemical weapons, specifically mustard gas. Landry’s lab, which includes several graduate and undergraduate students and a post-doctorate fellow, works with analogs of the compound to try to develop techniques which will best neutralize it. Several years ago, the United States signed a treaty which obligated it to destroy its chemical stockpiles by the year 2007. Already, the US has proposed that the treaty’s deadline be extended until the year 2017, because the military estimates that it will not be able to neutralize its stockpiles in time. The treaty, connected to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been signed by many countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, and Mexico, calls for the neutralization of many classes of weapons, both biological and chemical. So how can we go about getting rid of our mustard gas? Several options have been proposed, all with very serious potential problems. The first option, simply burning the gas, releases harmful carbon-based gasses into the atmosphere, and carries a risk of spreading a small amount of the chemical to nearby communities. Four to six years ago, an army base in Alabama attempted to burn some of its stockpiles, resulting in a public relations disaster for the military. Another proposal is to simply bury the drums of mustard gas, but the problem with this approach is that over time, the chemical has a high chance of seeping into the soil and water supplies, and even a small dosage of such chemical weapons can be lethal to humans and animals alike. Landry’s goal is to get rid of the weapons in a controlled way, reducing them to non-toxic chemicals which can be easily managed and disposed of. Ideally, says Landry, the technology could extend to use in the field as well – decontaminating equipment safely and efficiently if effected by the toxin. According to Landry, the nanospheres of silica his lab is working with could be put into a filter, which would detoxify an inert liquid used to clean equipment in the field. The current technology available to combat this problem exists only in a liquid form – Landry is seeking to develop a solid that can be transported more easily, and used with minimal equipment set-up. The biggest obstacle to the completion of this research is the time frame in which it must be done: the US stockpiles of mustard gas, a deceptively named liquid, are being housed in stainless steel drums in military bases around the country. According to Dr. Landry, “eventually the drum[s] [are] gonna fail,” and some are already leaking. The problem of chemical stockpiles must be addressed quickly, and the clock is already ticking.