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Making toxic explosives harmless, UA team working with DOD

Posted at 6:52 AM, Jun 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-10 09:52:19-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — When explosives go off, they can release debris and substances into the environment. And when new weapons are introduced it takes a lot of research to figure out how to make those explosives environmentally safe.

A University of Arizona engineering team is spearheading this research for the United States Department of Defense. UA's assistant dean of engineering, Jim Fields, said the military developed a new class of weapons. But the fall out from those weapons still needs to be researched.

"But the problem is that they are new chemicals and we don't know how they are going to behave in the environment. So the objective of our research is to see if its possible in an environment that they become completely degraded and therefore pose no environmental risk," said Fields.

Those chemicals are called DNAN and NTO. Fields said DNAN has similar properties to TNT, and will soon replace it. And NTO dissolves so well in water, it can prove risky to nearby aquifers and wells.

In the preliminary stages of research, fields and his team work closely with the DOD to help keep military bases environmentally safe.

"After they practice on the firing range and the bombs go off, then there is going to be explosive residues on the surface. So they want to know if there's a rain shower and it all goes into the soil, they want to make sure that it doesn't go into aquifers that people use for drinking water," said Fields.

So the team is creating, what they call "magic micro-organisms," that will ultimately biodegrade those harmful chemicals.

"Some of the ways we can use those organisms is that we can add them to the soil. And since these organisms are able to eat these explosive compounds, that means they benefit. And if they benefit, then they grow and make more micro-organisms," said Fields.

The hope is to create a formula in which these "magic micro-organisms" can be sprayed onto areas where these explosives go off.

The research is funded with two grants from the DOD's strategic environmental research and development program. One for just over $1.1 million and another for about $678,000.