Zapping poisons with blue plasma Research: A Baltimore firm gains an Air Force contract with major commercial possibilities.

December 28, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

It's the battlefield of the near future, and some despotic goon has just launched cruise missiles filled with anthrax at an American air base.

Cleanup troops arrive with gear straight out of the "Ghostbusters" movies -- backpacks with long wands that emit a strange blue glow. Walking amid contaminated Humvees and toilet seats that could dissolve human organs, the troops wave the wands over the objects. In moments, the objects are germ-free.

Environmental Elements Corp. of Baltimore has won an Air Force contract to try to make that eerie cleanup possible. Working with researchers at the University of Tennessee who developed the technology, the company hopes it can parlay such wizardry into commercial gold.

Hospitals could use the glowing wands to sterilize medical equipment more quickly than autoclaves. Importers could use them to treat food instead of using potentially dangerous radiation.

"If this works out the way we're hoping it works out, the small businesses involved could have a very interesting commercial market to work with," said Robert Barker, the Air Force's program manager for the project.

The root of the effort is exotic-sounding technology called glow plasma discharge.

"You can see examples of it in Frankenstein movies," said Paul L. Feldman, vice president for advanced air quality research at Environmental Elements.

The arcs of raw voltage when Frankenstein hoists his creature into the lightning, or for that matter the glow and crackle of power lines -- those are wild forms of glow plasma discharge.

Researchers at Environmental Elements, along with University of Tennessee professor Reece Roth, are devising ways to control the phenomenon and make it a steady field instead of a fleeting bolt.

The idea is to run high voltage through a diode to break down gases in the surrounding air. As molecules in the air come apart and electrons are stripped away, excited nitrogen atoms give off a blue glow.

In a tube filled with neon, the same general technique gives us Broadway, Las Vegas and Budweiser signs in barroom windows everywhere.

The difference is that light bulbs contain gas at low pressure. "It's more difficult to generate at [normal] atmospheric pressure. That really is the trick," said Dennis J. Helfritch, program manager for Environmental Elements.

In this case, the supercharged air around the diode becomes a plasma. The plasmas in "Ghostbusters" were slimy and gooey, but this one is a field of neutrally charged gas containing lots of electrons and ions.

That field breaks down or oxidizes any particles that enter it. Even confronted with materials such as deadly microbes or dangerous chemicals, the only byproducts appear to be harmless substances such as water and carbon dioxide, Helfritch said.

Barker, the Air Force project manager, said he got the idea of applying glow plasma discharge to military cleanup this year when he stumbled on the technology at a science conference.

"I'm sort of a scout in the scientific community," he said, always on the lookout for new developments that could match up to a military need. "Sometimes the matchups work and sometimes they don't, but this one looked particularly promising."

The Pentagon has been especially concerned about chemical and biological weapons lately because of the proliferation of cruise missiles, considered one of the gravest threats of the post-Cold War world. Now dozens of volatile regimes can deliver warheads to targets far and wide, and U.S. forces have no reliable way of stopping them.

Earlier this month, President Clinton announced the precaution of vaccinating troops against anthrax -- one of the favorite bugs of autocrats like Saddam Hussein.

Cleaning up such ghastly substances is no pretty thing itself. Military manuals call for using solutions of bleach or chlorine, or even formaldehyde or radiation -- all substances that pose risks of their own.

When chemical contaminants such as nerve gas are involved, the standard cleaning agent is a highly corrosive solution called DS2.

"But we're looking to replace it," said Jim Allingham, spokesman for the Edgewood Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where the military trains for hazardous material disposal.

DS2 is so corrosive that it's hard to store and can destroy the very equipment it is used to decontaminate, Allingham said.

"Chemical and biological decontamination is a very serious concern," Barker said. "As soon as I heard about this [new technology], it stuck in my mind."

He drew up a request for proposals under a Pentagon small business program, and Environmental Elements -- backed by the University of Tennessee -- won the $100,000 contract this month for the first phase of research. Next spring, the project is likely to advance to a $750,000 phase two in which they will build a prototype.

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