Researchers develop process to destroy chemical and biological toxins

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are developing a process that can destroy chemical or biological toxins quickly, completely and safely.

According to Sunggyu ‘KB’ Lee, professor and chair of chemical engineering at MU, his research group has implemented a technology that destroys 100 percent of toxins in a contaminated area.

This process is called supercritical water oxidation (SCWO), and Lee believes it has the potential to treat a variety of toxins whether they are chemical agents or a biological agent such as anthrax.

‘The SCWO process uses supercritical water, which is water at high temperature, greater than 705.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and a pressure greater than 3,200 psi,’ he said. ‘Under this high temperature and pressure, water has a liquid-like density while its viscosity is gas-like.

‘Organic materials and gases become highly soluble in this water. When oxygen is added, it dissolves in the supercritical water medium, and the materials are oxidised and almost instantly destroyed, leaving only non-toxic materials such as water, carbon dioxide, chloride and phosphate.’

Lee said the SCWO process is advantageous as it decisively works for all chemical and biological materials, even in mixed forms, which eliminates the need for pre-sorting contaminated materials.

Another advantage is that equipment used in the process is relatively small and there is no need to treat non-toxic discharge materials, so a SCWO unit can be installed in a self-contained mobile trailer that can be moved quickly and easily.

Lee added that the process works for both toxins and contaminated articles, and that the reaction taking place in SCWO is self-sustaining and energy efficient, as the heat generated by the reaction provides some of the energy required to maintain it.

Currently, six supercritical mini-pilot and pilot systems are in operation in Lee’s lab. ‘Once a prototype is designed, I believe mobile units could be produced for about $500,000 each,’ he concluded.