Among the increasing use of lasers in various fields, decontamination operations after a terror attack might be the latest addition.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), chemists at Idaho National Lab (INL) are researching ways to help the nation clean up after potential chemical attacks.

In a series of tests still underway at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, INL researchers have been using ultraviolet-wavelength lasers to scrub surfaces clean of sulphur mustard gas and VX (a nerve agent) that may remain after terror attacks.

The tests have proved successful so far, even on complex, porous surfaces like concrete.

According to Donald Bansleben, programme manager in S&T’s Chemical and Biological Division, lasers could one day play a big role.

“Lasers could help to scrub chemical-contaminated buildings clean and become a tool in the toolbox to speed a facility’s return to normal operations.”

Cleaning up chemical-contaminated structures can be difficult, costly, and time-consuming.

For one thing, most preferred methods employ other chemicals, like bleach solutions, which can be corrosive and aggressive.

Many building materials — like cement and brick — are extremely porous and getting contaminants off such surfaces is difficult, as contaminants will seep into cracks and pores.

Just as contaminants might get into those cracks and pores, water too can penetrate. That is where lasers come in.

Laser pulses can flash that water into steam, carrying the contaminants back to the surface for removal by chelation or other means. “It’s a kind of laser steam-cleaning,” says INL chemist Bob Fox.

Fox and his team are adapting an established technology. Lasers have been used in cleanup capacities for more than a decade, says an S&T release.

Dentists employ them to kill periodontal bacteria and quash mouth infections. Doctors use them to remove tattoos. And lasers have recently become a common tool to restore precious artwork.

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