Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Carolyn Krause ()
Communications and External Relations


Warfare Agent Mass Spectrometer Being Built at ORNL

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 16, 1998 — A chemical-biological mass spectrometer (CBMS) that will more accurately detect deadly chemical and biological warfare agents and warn soldiers to wear protective gear or to avoid contaminated areas is being developed at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for the U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command (CBDCOM).

The new instrument, which is expected to be produced in 2001 for military use, could also be modified for valuable civilian applications. It could map environmental pollutants, rapidly identify bacteria in hospitals, ensure that processed food is free of bacterial contamination, and identify hazardous materials from industrial accidents and terrorist attacks.

During the Persian Gulf War, many false alarms were sounded by detectors used to determine if U.S.-led coalition forces were being exposed to Iraqi chemical warfare agents. "The reason," says Wayne Griest, manager for the CBMS program at ORNL, "is that many detectors were confounded by the chemically complex background of fumes from oil well fires, fuels, and lubricants, as well as exhausts from weapons and engines. The new CBMS being developed by the Oak Ridge team should solve this problem. The final product should provide vastly improved protection to our troops."

CBDCOM has chosen ORNL as its partner to lead the development of the next series of the CBMS, the Block II. The current Block I CBMS is used to identify or signal the presence of toxins, viruses, and other dangerous biological warfare agents such as anthrax bacteria. The new Block II CBMS is intended to identify both biological agents and chemical agents such as VX nerve gas.

The Army has asked the developers to design a device that is more sensitive, rugged, easily maintainable in the field, and user-friendly and to reduce its size, power requirements, and production cost. ORNL is responsible for the design, prototyping, and demonstration of the Block II CBMS under CBDCOM guidance. Some agent testing will be conducted in special facilities at ORNL.

Because of its expertise in developing ion trap mass spectrometers for analysis of environmental pollutants, ORNL was selected to spearhead the development of the Block II CBMS, which started in January 1997. The next-generation instrument will be designed to detect and distinguish among a wider variety of airborne chemicals and microorganisms as well as chemicals on the ground.

The Block II CBMS will consist of six modules; the total package will be about the size of a desktop computer with a monitor. The instrument will be self-diagnosing; if a breakdown occurs, the computer will tell the operator which module should be replaced.

The Block II CBMS is being designed and built by a team of more than 50 researchers from five ORNL divisions (Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division, with support from the Instrumentation and Controls, Computational Physics and Engineering, Life Sciences, and Computer Science and Mathematics divisions) and three contractors, MSP Corporation, the Colorado School of Mines, and the Orbital Sciences Corporation.

The researchers have made several innovations to improve the CBMS design. They are developing novel air sampler and pyrolyzer modules, an advanced ion trap mass spectrometer, and data acquisition, manipulation, and display systems. In addition, they have designed the circuitry to include the most modern components that can perform advanced functions yet remain physically rugged and tolerant of radiation.

The Orbital Sciences Corporation will contribute to the design of the prototypes and will manufacture preproduction units. The ORNL-led effort is projected to total $32 million over a four-year period.

ORNL, one of the Department of Energy's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.