By Mr. Dan Lafontaine (RDECOM)February 27, 2012
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- To shield American Soldiers from emerging chemical threats in combat, the U.S. Army turns to scientists such as Frederick Cox and his team at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
Cox, branch chief of ECBC's Chemical, Biological and Radiological Filtration Group, manages 25 scientists who are entrusted with filters that protect Warfighters and civilians from potentially dangerous airborne chemicals and biological hazards.
LESSENING THE BURDEN
"From a Soldier's perspective, the most important aspect of the filters is the total burden to them. [It's the] weight, size and bulk," Cox said.
Cox and his colleagues examine each aspect in military filters. This attention to detail enables Soldiers to overcome the challenges associated with completing a mission in a contaminated area.
"Can [Soldiers] fire a rifle with a mask filter up against the stock of that rifle? Seemingly little things can go a long way," Cox said. "Also, can we make it last longer? Every filter has a life. If you're in a contaminated environment, you want to keep that life as long as possible so you don't have to change it out.
"Even incremental improvements can lessen the burden on the Soldier. A quarter-inch difference in diameter allows you to sight your gun better."
RESPONDING TO COMBAT REQUIREMENTS
ECBC designs filtration systems to protect Soldiers, as well as buildings and armored vehicles for military services and government agencies, Cox said. Army scientists must be ready to respond immediately to concerns from theater with answers or solutions.
"When we get a call from a commander in the field who says, 'We have encountered this threat. Are we protected? We have this problem with this system. Can you design something that will eliminate the contaminant or threat in that system?' We're able to answer them directly, 'Yes, you're protected.' Or [we] come up with a system, test it, and deliver it. That's definitely the most satisfying," he said.
Cox said he and his fellow scientists take their responsibility seriously because they handle some of the most toxic substances in the world, and any mistake can be lethal.
"When [the military places technology] into a fielded item, everything that might go wrong we've explored. We've pushed the technology to the limits so they function at an optimal level," Cox said.
"We feel a certain responsibility working on chemical protection. We're responsible to the end user -- the Soldier in the field using the mask. When we see a problem in a filter, we go the extra mile to make sure we eliminate it or find out what the root cause is. That touches everyone on the team," he said.
THREATS IN THEATER
America's decade at war in the Middle East brought unexpected challenges to ECBC's scientists, Cox said. Instead of sophisticated chemical-weapon systems, Soldiers were confronted with small, concealed caches.
"One issue that we've had [in Afghanistan is] clandestine [drug] laboratories. [Soldiers] would encounter a totally different class of chemicals than you would expect for chemical warfare agents," Cox said. "They're not something we're normally concerned with, but that's something that Soldiers were encountering.
"Another example is chlorine. Early in the Iraq war, there were improvised explosives with chlorine. That crystallized an effort here working with the Joint Program Manager for Protection to ensure that our filters would protect against it."
'REAP THE REWARDS'
Cox, who has worked for three years at ECBC's Research and Technology Directorate, earned a bachelor of science in chemistry from Loyola University and a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Delaware. He worked for defense contractor Battelle for six years before joining ECBC.
"For a student interested in science, engineering or technology field, my advice would be to pursue it all the way through. The road from high school to college to graduate school is long.
Eventually, you'll be able to point to something and say, 'I had a hand in that. I was the one responsible for building that.' You'll be able to reap the rewards of what you've been after," Cox said.