Chemical weapons analyser is targeting the space
The device developed at the TUT, known as a chemical weapons detector, can find new applications in space.
The primary application of the device, developed for the Ministry of Defence at the Chair of Analytic Chemistry of the TUT Faculty of Science, is to provide soldiers with a portable tool for quick detection of the use of chemical weapons.
The operating principle of the device is based on capillary electrophoresis. A sample of a substance is placed on top of ultra thin capillary, e.g., with a syringe. It is then separated into components for an analysis with the sensor. This enables to analyse a wide variety of chemicals. For instance, the laboratory of the Chair includes a much larger device, based on the same operating principle, for studying the impact of metals on protein activity among other things. Similarly, the analyser developed by the researchers at the TUT can be used in many applications. “It is essentially like a single hammer that we use for hammering different nails – the technology of capillary electrophoresis enables to build very small and portative analysers,” explained Prof. Mihkel Kaljurand, Director of the Department of Chemistry and Head of the Chair of Analytical Chemistry.
One possible application would be the analysis of human breath to detect pathogens of different diseases, such as lung cancer. “Sometimes people need to go out of the lab to take readings on site,” added Kaljurand. “For instance, to determine whether suspected drug users have indeed used narcotic substances. Or whether somebody somewhere has used chemical weapons.” The current methodology requires a sample to be taken to a lab and analysed there, so that the actual substance can be identified in three days, for instance. However, the device developed at the TUT would provide an almost instant answer.
Negotiations have started with the European Space Agency on developing a model, which could be used for analysing soil samples on other planets to see whether the samples taken by a robot contain bacteria or other signs of the presence of life. The current analysers used in space are only capable of processing gases and this requires any soil samples to be heated by up to 800 degrees, depending on the environment. Unfortunately, some substances disintegrate as a result of such processing and the results are not always unambiguous. The device developed at the TUT could also process liquids. “Ideally, we would stay at minus 80 degrees, the temperature found on Mars,” said Kaljurand.
Three prototypes have been currently completed. Two of those have to be connected to a computer for data analysis, while the third contains an integrated processor and screen. “Final completion of such a device requires a long period of development,” explained Kaljurand. “We still have plenty to do before something is finished.” However, one future application of the device is already known and it is also associated with chemical weapons. Namely, about 8,000 tons of missiles containing mustard gas have been sunk in the Gotland region of the Baltic Sea, posing a potential leakage hazard. The device of the TUT researchers will be used in an expedition in the next summer to analyse seabed mud for any traces of leaked mustard gas. “This will be a kind of moment of truth for our device, to see whether it can contribute something,” said Kaljurand.