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Plasma technology offers breathable air during chemical threat situations

March 2005
Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are using the same matter that is at the heart of the sun in a new filtration system that may one day save the lives of people seeking shelter from chemical attacks. The PNNL-developed system uses plasma to destroy toxic industrial chemicals, such as hydrogen cyanide and ammonia, and chemical warfare agents, such as sarin. In addition, the system could be used to destroy biological agents, such as the influenza virus or smallpox virus. Plasma is an ionized gas that contains about the same amount of positive and negative ions. Inside the sun and other stars, plasma is created at extreme temperatures. In the PNNL Hybrid Plasma Filtration System, it is created at much lower temperatures. PNNL has more than a decade of experience using plasma for environmental remediation, health, and manufacturing tasks, including organic vapor abatement from paint booths and destroying carbon tetrachloride removed from the soil at a former nuclear weapons site. Destroying Toxic Gases and Pumping Out Clean Air Inside the Hybrid Plasma Filtration System, chemical-laden air passes through a chamber containing plasma, which is created by a series of electrodes on either side. As the molecules pass through the chamber, they react with the plasma, creating electrically unbalanced molecules or radicals. These radicals attack the toxic chemicals, breaking them apart. The chemical fragments are trapped in carbon. Purified air is pumped out. PNNL designed, built and tested the new filtration system. The researchers tested the system with a variety of surrogates, chemicals that are safe to use but have similar chemical and physical properties to toxic gases. Then, the system was taken to a military proving ground in Utah, where it was tested with real chemical agents. "The system is efficient and reliable," said PNNL chief engineer Chris Aardahl. "In addition, it gives you pretty palatable electric requirements while still making the device very compact for tight spaces." Safer Soldiers and Safer Civilians Originally built for the Department of Defense to protect soldiers, this technology may soon find a niche in the commercial market as well. The laboratory has built a compact prototype of the system, but plans to enlarge it significantly for use in bigger spaces, such as chemical manufacturing plants, hospitals, and other buildings as well as tented structures and aircraft. "This is a technology that we wish the nation wouldn't need, but in light of our changing times, it's satisfying to be part of a solution that can help protect people and even save lives," said Ken Rappe, senior development engineer at PNNL. Contact: Kelvin Soldat, Environment, Safety and Health Product Line Manager

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