U.S. military and civilian specialists aboard the ship began using the field deployable hydrolysis system to neutralize Syrian chemical materials on July 7, Director of Pentagon Press Operations Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters at the time, anticipating that it would take about 60 days to complete the job.
On August 5 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground-Edgewood Team CBRNE capabilities showcase, Adam Baker, a chemical engineer and project manager with the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, detailed the hard work that went into turning a land-based hydrolysis system into a field-deployable system in just five months.
"We had a gap in capabilities for a system that was transportable, that could be operated out of a remote location and that would [process] bulk liquid agent at high throughputs."
The system had to be able to be transported to a remote site and set up and be sufficient with a supply of reagents and diesel fuel, Baker explained.
The project was given the go-ahead in February 2013. In November 2013, he said, "That's when they made the decision to start putting it on the Cape Ray."
The timeline was short, Baker said, and they couldn't start from scratch with a new system, so they used a process from the former Aberdeen Chemical Demilitarization Facility, or ABCDF, that had been used a decade ago to neutralize 1,700 tons of mustard part of the destruction of the United States' own chemical stockpile.
Baker said the engineers compressed that process into transportable, standardized shipping containers. They had two titanium reactors they could use for the Cape Ray that made it easier for rapid deployment of the two systems that are now on the ship.
One of the Cape Ray's most critical design factors for the system, Baker said, "was that everything we needed had to go on that ship. Instead of having trucks come in every day and bring the reagent and trucks go out every day with your waste, all of those containers had to go on the ship."
At least 269 of the standardized shipping containers are on the ship, holding everything the specialists and crew need and everything the hydrolysis process needs and then creates. Nothing is dumped from the ship.
The hydrolysis system essentially mixes the chemicals with water and sodium hypochlorite bleach and produces a low-level waste that will be treated to reduce acidity and then stored in containers on the ship until they're delivered to commercial waste-treatment facilities.
Baker said the original chemical cargo from Syria consisted of about 600 tons of methylphosphonyl difluoride, usually called DF, the main precursor of sarin and other nerve agents, and 20 tons of mustard, a blister agent.
On August 2 or so, the Cape May passed the 50 percent mark for destruction of DF, he added.
"We're going to [process] all of the DF before we start any mustard because having multiple agents going at the same time is a lot more to manage -- the protective equipment and the air monitoring - there are a lot more considerations," he said.
When the Cape Ray's mission is complete, Baker said, officials in the Office of the Joint Program Manager for Elimination will decide on the long-term plan for the field-deployable hydrolysis capability.
"I know they want to keep it as equipment that can be used. They want to sustain it," he added, "but they have to work out the funding and that's a work in progress."
The system is designed to process bulk liquid agent, the chemical engineer said, so other countries that have such stockpiles could find the field-deployable hydrolysis technology useful.
"When we designed it, we made sure to put as much flexibility into the system as we could," Baker explained.
"We had a recipe for how we processed mustard and a recipe for how we processed DF, but you could use recipes for a lot of different agents," he added, "so it's just a matter of what the agents are, going back to the bench chemistry, figuring out how they need to be mixed and seeing how best to do that in this system."
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