Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Edgewood Chemical Biological Center teams collaborate to create miniature, live-saving explosives detector

Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s (ECBC) Innovative Development Engineering Acquisitions (IDEA) Team and the Engineering Design and Analysis Team of the Directorate’s Advanced Design and Manufacturing Division (ADM) are combining their capabilities to develop a chemical detector that addresses the improvised nature of homemade explosives, allowing for detection of the unsophisticated chemicals used to create them.

"Overseas, people aren’t using sophisticated explosives like C4 or RDX. They are using uncontrolled substances that can be found in anyone’s bathroom or garage, like hydrogen peroxide or other compounds that can be used in fertilizers," said IDEA Team Leader Jim Genovese.

While in theater, Warfighters come across many unknown substances. Something that bears the physical properties of a simple powder like baking powder can end up being used to create a lethal explosive. Prior to the Engineering teams’ collaborative work to develop a more efficient chemical detector for these ad hoc compounds, identifying the potentially lethal substances involved a process that could take hours, and in some instances days. Gathering test samples, remote communication to labs for analysis – by the time it was determined whether or not a substance was harmful, the damage could have already been done.

The development of the Squad Homemade Explosives Kit (Squad HME) allows these unknown substances to be identified in a matter of seconds. The Squad HME is a colorimetric concept that identifies harmful explosives by the homemade chemicals used, allowing for a larger amount of explosives to be detected, hopefully saving the lives of Warfighters. The current design is based on a fielded chemical agent detector called the M256A6, used to detect chemical warfare hazards.

When the Army Technology Office contacted the IDEA team to come up with something to combat Innovative Explosive Devices, Genovese jumped on the challenge.
"IDEA and ADM were not afraid to tackle this challenge, we fielded the M256A2 colorimetric detector and thought we had the experience to do this," Genovese said.

What Genovese and the IDEA Team came up with on paper in 2010, ADM helped make a reality. Lead Engineer for the Squad HME Kit at ADM, Kevin Ridgley, recalls the day when Genovese showed his initial sketches to him.

"The collaborative relationship between ADM and IDEA allowed Jim to talk through his sketches and ideas with our team to determine their feasibility," Ridgley said. "He illustrated the ideas on paper, and then we quickly worked them into several different prototypes."

The square-sized mechanism fits into a pocket and in just 30 seconds can identify if readily-available, uncontrolled substances are being used in mixtures that can cause mass damage. The mechanism has two halves that fold together and click into place. One side is where the unknown substance can be placed and the other side includes the identifying chemicals in capsules. When testing, the two sides will be folded together and regent ampoules crushed. After 30 seconds, the colorimetric technology will identify whether or not the substance is dangerous or safe.

This particular product went through dozens of prototypes before they decided on the current working model.

"Because of our technologies, we are able to create several versions of a product, test them out and pick one that works most efficiently," Ridgley said.

In June 2011, the Squad HME Kit was successfully used in a Military Utility Assessment by the Maneuver Support Battle Lab at Fort Leonard Wood. The lab found that Warfighters can be instructed on how to use it in about 10 minutes.

The Squad HME Kit currently has a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of six. This rating places the kit between the technology demonstration and system subsystem development stages. Genovese said by the end of the current Fiscal Year, the Squad HME Kit could earn a TRL level eight, which is the beginning stages of the system test and launch operations stage. A score of eight will allow the Squad HME Kit to be fielded.

During these stages of technology demonstration and subsystem development, the teams are working together to evolve the Squad HME designs in order to create a user friendly product.

"I am confident that the Warfighter can benefit from this technology. The creation of this project took good chemistry and synergy between the IDEA Team and the ADM Division to develop a successful product so fast," Genovese said. Echoing Genovese’s optimism for the Squad HME’s benefits to the Warfighter, Ridgley described the kit as "a gift."

"This is a very essential product," Ridgley said. "To be able to give Warfighters something that is easy, pocket-sized, self-contained, disposable, cheap and doesn’t require any sort of power – that is truly a gift."

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