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Fighting terrorism with lasers

Decomposing VX nerve agent with ultraviolet laser light (Courtesy: INL)

By Margaret Harris

Here’s one possible laser application that didn’t make it into this month’s special issue using lasers to remove chemical contaminants after a terrorist attack.

According to a press release from the US Department of Homeland Security, researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have successfully used ultraviolet-wavelength lasers to remove samples of mustard gas and the nerve agent VX from porous surfaces like concrete. One of the scientists involved, INL chemist Bob Fox, compared the process to “laser steam-cleaning”.

As you might expect, the details in the press release are a little sketchy, but it appears that UV light from the laser is breaking molecular bonds in the VX, causing it to decompose into non-hazardous daughter products – and leaving behind the “harmless” (if rather nasty looking) brown stain shown in the photo.

This isn’t an entirely new idea; instead, it’s an adaptation of older procedures that use lasers to scrub soot off buildings and unwanted tattoos off human flesh. The INL team has also studied ways of using lasers to remove radioactive contamination, and might move on to biological contaminants in the future. “I’m willing to shine my light on anything,” says Fox.

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