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"The Art of Chemical Warfare Analysis" using IONICON PTR-TOFMS

The Analytical Scientist magazine explored its online statistics to ascertain the Top 10 most read articles in 2022. The Number One article?! "The Art of Chemical Warfare Agent Analysis" – a conversation between IONICON's Philipp Sulzer and Editor James Strachan! Originally published on The Analytical Scientist website in June 2022, we reproduce the first few questions below with permission:

How did you end up specializing in chemical warfare agents?

I was born, grew up, and still live in the western part of Austria, where I also studied physics at the University of Innsbruck. I first came into contact with the world of what might be summarized as “hazardous substances” during my PhD studies at the Institute for Ion Physics and Applied Physics, when we investigated low-energy electron interactions with explosives. What really fascinated me were the reactions of not only science colleagues, but also friends and family whenever I talked about our results. Simply put, the results of basic research on “boring” compounds often meet with limited interest – but, as soon as the work involves explosives, people start asking questions. Literally the day after my PhD defense in 2008, I joined IONICON Analytik as head of the applied science department. IONICON, now a medium sized enterprise, was then a small university spinoff founded by the inventors of proton-transfer reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS). Because this extremely sensitive real-time trace gas analysis technology is ideal for the investigation of hazardous substances, I was more than happy to join international research collaborations and projects on the detection and analysis of explosives, psychoactive substances, toxic industrial chemicals (TICs), and CWAs. One early example was a project named SPIRIT, funded by the European Commission, in which we built a PTR-MS instrument for extremely sensitive and selective real-time monitoring of building HVAC systems for terrorist TIC/CWA attacks. This was highly successful, so we were invited to join more and more TIC/CWA-related projects.

What happens immediately after a CWA attack?

This is when first responders – highly trained professionals (who typically do not have a scientific background) with easy-to-operate detectors – are needed. Analytical scientists are required later in the process for two main tasks. First, we can provide detailed laboratory analysis of samples from the site of attack to get as much information as possible. With this information it might even be possible to track down where and when the CWA was synthesized. Second, we can perform the research needed to develop and improve the technology and algorithms of CWA detectors.

Did the Kuala Lumpur airport and Salisbury incidents change the CWA field?  

What makes these two incidents stand out is that the use of CWAs has been proven. Additionally, there are numerous reports of alleged assassination attempts on politicians and other public figures, as well as about incidents in armed conflicts where the involvement of CWAs is ambiguous because confirmative analysis was performed too late or was not possible at all. However, one huge analytical challenge rarely discussed in the media is how to confirm that a (public) space is “clean and safe” after a CWA attack. There are standardized cleaning procedures using dedicated decontamination agents but there should also be analytical confirmation that the floor, handrails, door pulls,and so on are safe to touch. Obviously, this can be done by taking a wipe test, bringing the swab to a lab, and performing a GC-MS analysis. But repeating this process over and over to cover only part of an airport is extremely time-consuming and therefore expensive.

Read the full interview with Philipp Sulzer HERE

Learn more about CWA measurement campaigns and decontamination verification using IONICON PTR-TOF technology HERE