Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Process Wednesday: just how mobile is a reactor, anyway?

Tim Blades, director of operations for the Chemical Biological Application 
and Risk Reduction Business Unit, talks at a June 27 demonstration 
of the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System at the Aberdeen 
Proving Ground. (Army)
Process Wednesday is not meant to be topical, but I did happen to run across a story recently that I found incredibly relevant to the news of the moment -- the Department of Defense is developing a mobile chemical weapons destruction facility:
Should the Pentagon need to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons, it can do so with new mobile systems that can neutralize and destroy the materials, according to defense officials. 
The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) is designed to destroy chemical warfare agents in bulk and can be up and running within 10 days of arriving on site. 
“We are acquiring some ability to deal with chemical materials should we be in a position where we have to do that,” Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Wednesday during a presentation at the IDEEA-sponsored COMDEF conference in Washington.... 
...A crew of 15 people is needed to operate the system at any given time, according to the Army. The system can neutralize between five and 25 metric tons of chemicals per day, depending on the material.
To this novice process chemist, the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System appears to be a flow unit (the pipes on the right?) with a 2000 gallon reactor (with agitator gearbox?) attached to it. I don't quite know what the reactor w/agitator is for: to hold the hydrolysate? to be the unit where the hydrolysis happens? It would also be terribly interesting to know how they get the nerve agent into the system. Crack open the nerve agent rounds, pour into tote, suck into reactor? Doubtful.

[Worth remembering that nerve agent destruction is fairly simple -- mix your sarin or VX with caustic soda (50% aqueous sodium hydroxide) and heat until you can't detect the nerve agent anymore...]

I'm interested to learn that they need 15 folks to operate the system -- that suggests to me that it's a reasonably complex process (although who knows if that's 3 teams of 5, working 3 shifts a day) or 1 operator and 14 people to cringe and make sure (s)he's doing it right.

Finally, I am very curious to know exactly how mobile such a unit might be. I know that reactors go across the country on flatbed trucks all the time -- how exactly would they transport such a unit overseas? By boat? Does a 2000 gallon reactor fit in a shipping container? Could a C-130 fit a 2000 gallon reactor? Dunno.

I like adventure myself, but I would not volunteer to work with the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System in Syria, or anywhere else where this unit might be required. Unless, of course, the FDHS came with a battalion of crack infantry troops to surround it....

UPDATE: For those who wish a slightly more skeptical view of the practicality of this, click here. 


  1. I wonder if that is the complete unit and that there may be more auxiliary pieces elsewhere. Just the fact that it needs 10 days to be set up says that it is not as simple as it appears. (Granted, I don't know of any other reactor system that can be installed in 10 days.)

    I assume the reactor module is tipped over for transport. Otherwise it isn't going to make it under too many bridges. If Tim is 6 feet tall, the tower looks to be 18 feet.

    Getting the chemicals out? I thought all the drums had Sure/Seals on them for easy, safe access.

    The Wikipedia page you linked to stated that the Newport Chemical Depot, just north of Terre Haute has now destroyed their VX stock. Good. I used to drive past that place weekly as fast as my VW Rabbit would allow. Ironically, they used to use rabbits as their leak detection system.

    1. I had a coworker tell me a good story about Newport. Said that a worker once was in the bathroom, in the stall and yelled "Who turned out the lights?!? Turn them back on! This isn't funny!" The lights, of course, were on.

      ...turns out he had been exposed...

    2. Perhaps he was pushing with such a strenuous effort that his eyeballs popped right out of his eyesockets

  2. Try moving drums which are old and of questionable structural integrity. And if they've been overpack-ed, it doesn't get better. Not a fun job.

    Ah, brings back memories of my summer internships at Detrick and Edgewood. Better than cutting grass or painting houses!

  3. My father is retired Air Force where working mostly in Civil Engineering units then later worked at a heavy equipment production facility that made custom units of regular type construction vehicles for armed services. Transport there was defined as hauled on flatbeds and fit into Air Heavy Haul planes (used to be C130s but possibly recently phased out in favor of faster jets) therefore very precise length and weight requirements involved. This does looks like would fit into a C-130 or perhaps 2. Any parts taken off have to be easily done and then reattached. I do think not a full picture and would expect at least Control Room as largely automated, then probably associated storage and prep areas, maybe even robotic handling zones and would suspect there is a containment building that can be assembled around this if no suitable warehouse or other facility around (unless do want outdoors?). The 10 days is probably 3-4 for setup 3-4 to test/adjust/retest and a couple to final stage for actual intro. I doubt EPA has direct authority but likely all this run ultra safely and knowing services they might need another plane to hauls documents and paperwork

    1. Thanks for adding your knowledge, anon!

  4. Spotted this which gives some more info - Link to a US Army PDF file at the bottom.

  5. those are ISO-20 frames - which the process units are in.
    it appears that reactors could be in parallel...

  6. I thought that you used a mixture of NaOH and sodium hypochlorite. My memory is a little foggy (it's been 40 yrs!) here.

    Good old bleach and oven cleaner...