Since the use of nerve gas in World War II, these chemical weapons did not seen much action until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against the Kurds in the 1980s. But then Sarin nerve gas showed up in Syria and suddenly nerve gas was back as a threat.
Unlike guns or bombs, nerve gases are invisible, which makes them harder to detect. Scientists are working on a few solutions, including Angela Hight Walker of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and her colleagues. They’ve combined carbon nanotubes with a copper-based catalyst that breaks apart a key chemical bond in the class of nerve agents called organophosphates that includes Sarin. Although deadly if inhaled, these agents are also quite dangerous if they come into contact with the skin. Even clothing that contains the gas has to be thoroughly decontaminated before it can be worn again.
But the copper catalyst breaks molecular bonds in the gas, essentially splitting the molecules apart and reducing their potency.
It’s well known that carbon nanotubes can be woven into fabrics and Walker and her colleagues think it is not too far-fetched to weave the copper-laced nanotubes into fabrics that destroy organophosphates before they ever make contact with a person’s skin.
The team still has further research to conduct before such clothing becomes a reality, among them whether it would be better to add the catalyst to the nanotubes before or after they’re woven into the fabric.
“We’d also like to find ways to make the catalytic reaction go faster, which is always better,” Hight Walker said in a press release. “But our research group has been focusing on the fundamental science of nanoparticles for years, so we are in a good position to answer these questions.”
Image: Molecular model of Sarin nerve gas. Credit: PASIEKA/Science Photo Library/Corbis