Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Surface Analyzer Shows Promise for Detecting Chemical-Warfare Agents

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Surface Analyzer Shows Promise for Detecting Chemical-Warfare Agents

Article excerpt

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) can detect part-per-million levels of chemical warfare agents such as the blister agent HD or the nerve agent VX using a novel ion-trap secondary-ion mass spectrometer (IT-SIMS). INEEL researchers are developing surface-analysis instrumentation specifically for environmental samples such as soil or plant surfaces. Better analytical techniques for these kinds of materials support both environmental restoration and national security. Detection of chemical warfare agents is just one possible application of IT-SIMS.

Using IT-SIMS, researchers bombard the surface of a sample with a polyatomic projectile to lift, or "sputter" off, molecules adhering to the sample surface. The sputtered molecules, called secondary ions, retain the chemical characteristics of the warfare agent stuck to the surface of the soil. They are filtered by mass and then counted. The data are displayed as spectra (bar graphs that plot the number of ions versus their mass). Each chemical has a signature spectrum, as unique as a fingerprint.

The current standard for verifying the presence of chemical-warfare agents is gas or liquid chromatography in conjunction with mass spectrometry. Samples must be extracted from soils, plants, or concrete prior to analysis--a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that can destroy or bias the original sample. …

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