Czech university pioneers chemical warfare detection device

Chemical warfare detection device, photo: Czech Television

Scientists from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague are developing affordable equipment to help army and police rapidly and reliably detect explosives and chemicals that could be used in combat or other incidents. The NATO-supported project was launched two years ago, and the result, a sensor which should be part of a uniform, will be available to troops from all NATO countries.

Chemical warfare detection device, photo: Czech Television
While highly sophisticated detection equipment already exists for chemical warfare agents and explosives, it is often very expensive and can only be used by specialized units and by trained experts.

For the past two years, the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague, in cooperation with the Yerevan State University in Armenia and the University of Defense in Vyškov, Moravia, has been working to develop sensors for devices that will be accessible and affordable for police, firefighters, and other first response units.

The head of the research team, Professor Martin Vrňata from the University of Chemistry and Technology’s Department of Physics and Measurements, outlines the advantages of the detector:

“Our detectors are intended as small modular replaceable parts which can be connected to some basic device. Its dimension is comparable with that of cellular phone, so it is a portable device. Another advantage is its affordable price. While conventional devices for detection of explosives cost tens of thousands of euros, our device will be available for hundreds of euro.”

Martin Vrňata, photo: archive of University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague
As Mr Vrňata explains, current gas sensors are often inefficient in detecting certain explosives. Therefore the team focused on the detection of the non-explosive additives contained in the explosive rather than on the explosive itself:

“The main problem concerning detection of explosives is that the explosives, such as TNT, have small vapour pressure so they produce an extremely low concentration of gas into atmosphere and therefore it is difficult to detect them by gas sensors.

“However, legally produced explosives must contain so-called detection taggants, non-explosive substances with higher vapour pressure. That’s way they can be easily revealed by dogs or by gas detectors.

While illegally manufactured explosives do not contain such taggants, they are often produced in an amateur manner, and as a result, they usually contain significant amount of by-products that can be detected by common gas detectors.

Illustrative photo: Czech Television
Development and testing of explosive and chemical warfare agents detectors is quite a complicated procedure. Since the University of Chemistry and Technology cannot directly handle warfare agents such as Sarin or mustard gas, sensors are first tested on so-called simulants that resemble them but don’t present any hazard to humans. Sensors are then taken to the laboratory of the University of Defense in Vyškov, which has permission to work with real warfare agents.

According to Mr Vrňata, the team has so far created eight suitable types of sensors that could be used in real-life situations.