Decontamination after chemical, biological and radiological weapons testing

Chemical weapons could be neutralised by new coating for clothes

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a powdery coating which can be “grown” onto fabric and may be able to deactivate chemical weapons such as sarin.

Since mustard gas was used to shocking effect in the trenches of World War One, numerous new chemical weapons with similarly devastating properties have been developed. This includes the nerve gas sarin, which is deadly to the touch in even microscopic quantities.

Chemical weapons, such as pepper spray and mustard gas, use specially formulated chemicals to cause injury or death in humans and are often dispersed as a gas. They are classified as weapons of mass destruction – along with biological and nuclear weapons – and their production is banned under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

In spite of the convention, Russia, the US, Syria, Iraq and a handful of other countries retain stockpiles of chemical weapons and the international ban has failed to prevent their use on civilians in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Responding to the need for protection against potential chemical attacks in warzones, researchers from North Carolina State University have published a study in Chemistry of Materials detailing how a lightweight coating – which can adhere to fabrics – is capable of neutralising some toxins which are delivered through the skin.

Scientists have, for several years, been exploring the properties of zirconium-based metal-organic framework (MOF) powders. These are tiny structures covered in pores, which can absorb a huge quantity of gases. The zirconium within the structure helps neutralise toxins.

Fabric coating to neutrlise toxins

American Chemical Society

Image credit: American Chemical Society

Creating MOFs, however, is an expensive and time-consuming task, and keeping the powders stable enough to stick to protective clothing has proved a challenge. Taking an alternative approach, the researchers tried “growing” MOFs onto fabric at room temperature.

They exposed a treated synthetic fabric, polypropylene, to a mixture of zirconium-based MOF, solvent and binding agents. The MOF-covered fabric was then tested by exposure to a chemical with similar properties to sarin and other nerve agents.

They found that the MOF-treated fabric deactivated the chemical in minutes; this could form the basis for a thin, lightweight shield to degrade some chemical weapons which kill or injure on contact.

The researchers suggest that protective clothing coated with zirconium-based MOF could be helpful for soldiers and emergency workers at risk of chemical attack.

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