This is the Machine That Would Neutralize Syria’s Chemical Weapons


Wheels are turning.

On September 14, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement regarding the chemical weapons crisis in Syria. A press release from the State Department outlining the framework for destroying Syrian chemical weapons says both the U.S. and Russia are determined to “ensure the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program in the soonest and safest manner.”

The ball is now in President Assad’s court. Both countries “expect Syria to submit, within a week, a comprehensive listing, including names, types, and quantities of its chemical weapons agents, types of munitions, and location and form of storage, production, and research and development facilities.”

Supposing this does happen, the next step is presumably to destroy the chemical weapons with as much haste and care as we can. But how?

When that discussion starts, there is one new tool you definitely need to know about: the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS).

The U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center (ECBC) recently developed the FDHS. It is “a transportable, high throughput neutralization system designed to convert chemical warfare materiel into compounds not usable as weapons.” In other words, deadly chemical weapons go in and useless chemical waste comes out.

The FDHS takes 10 days to set up, after which it is capable for neutralizing chemical weapons with a destruction efficiency of 99.9%. The FDHS can neutralize between five to 25 metric tons of chemical weapons per day depending on the material. U.S. intelligence believes Syria has around 1,000 tons of chemical weapons. In the simplest of scenarios, a single FDHS would take between 50 to 210 days to neutralize the arsenal. Of course, that is assuming we are only using one FDHS and only need it in one location.

So what does it take to run an FDHS? The cost of building a machine is unclear. However, the machine was developed with $1.6 million of initial funding received in March. Besides the cost of construction, the machine also needs water, fuel for its generators, and the chemical reagents: sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl).

As far as personnel, each FDHS required 15 individuals for each shift in order to be in operation 24/7. That doesn’t account for security for the location.

But the FDHS won’t solve every problem. It is designed to dispatch chemical weapons found in bulk, but can’t be used effectively for chemicals weapons that have been loaded in munitions. When it comes to dealing with chemical weapons that are in rockets or shells, it won’t be any use. It’s not yet clear how much of Syria’s arsenal is in such a position.

The FDHS also produces a significant amount of waste. According to the ECBC, “The FDHS neutralization process generates waste in volumes of five to 14 times the volume of chemical warfare material treated.” For this reason, it comes equipped with waste containers, which collect the effluent so it can be appropriately disposed of later.

A Pentagon spokesperson has said there are no current plans to use the FDHS to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons. A week ago, there wasn’t a plan to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons at all. Now, the U.S. and Russia have agreed that the “elimination of chemical weapons in Syria should be considered an urgent matter to be implemented within the shortest possible time period.”