UK nerve gas shield to get US trials

The US military is to test a UK-developed system that claims to offer highly effective protection against chemical and biological weapons.

Congress has approved funding for full-scale trials of a nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) filtration system produced by County Durham-based engineering group Domnick Hunter.

Evaluation of the product – a spin-off from the company’s core industrial filters and dryers operations – will begin within weeks at the Edgewood Centre in Maryland, the US Army’s chemical and biological research facility.

Army contract

Although Domnick Hunter has been researching NBC systems for eight years, it has only recently taken its patented technology to the marketplace. It won its first contract last June when the UK Army placed a £3.6m order for units to be fitted to armoured cars.

The filters are designed to provide a supply of breathable air for vehicles, ships or buildings at risk from chemical or biological attack. Domnick Hunter is billing the system as a major advance on the protective filters currently available, which rely on disposable carbon units to ‘catch’ rogue particles as they enter.

Carbon offers only limited protection against the wide range of chemical and biological agents that are now potential threats. Standard units also have a limited lifespan before they need replacing – a major logistical challenge in a war situation – and can be adversely affected by water vapour.

Domnick Hunter has adapted its technology to design an NBC device that protects against a wide range of agents, including cyanide, sarin, plague, anthrax and yellow fever. It has also been tested to exclude nuclear particles measuring more than 0.01 microns.

It uses a twin filter-bed system that does not need carbon and can operate for long periods without having to be replaced.

The two filter-beds are served by different tubes, only one of which is used as an air inlet at any given time. Contaminants are drawn on to the bed in use until it becomes saturated, at which point the second bed automatically takes over.

While one bed is on filtration duty, the second is cleaned and contaminants pumped back out of the system until it is once again clear for use.

Anthrax threat

Colin Billiet, Domnick Hunter’s chief executive, said the situation since September 11, and the perceived threat from anthrax and other agents, had significantly raised the profile of NBC defence in the US.

‘It’s definitely pushed things up the agenda,’ said Billiet. ‘America is obviously potentially a massive opportunity for us, but breaking into that market is not easy. However, the fact is we are currently the only game in town as far as this type of technology goes.’

Billiet added: ‘Our system is highly advanced, and is a direct spin-off from our industrial absorption technology. I think the US military felt they had to take a look at it.’

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