Scientists seek quicker ways to identify chemical and biological weapons

Additional efforts are required to develop the necessary technologies to identify new biological threats.
Additional efforts are required to develop the necessary technologies to identify new biological threats.

Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) researchers hope to find a way to quickly detect dangerous chemical and biological compounds, being the first Estonian university to participate in a European Defense Fund project. In circumstances comparable to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, it would be possible to get a quick first impression of what happened at the scene.

"Such a technique does not yet exist. The sample must be transported to the laboratory before it can be analyzed. Then it takes hours, if not days, to figure out what is going on. Our goal is to complete everything on the ground while keeping the necessary equipment as small as possible," Professor of Bioinformatics at Tallinn University of Technology Olli-Pekka Smolander said.

Even if some existing WMD detection techniques can detect usual compounds reasonably quickly, they are incapable of detecting, for example, fourth-generation chemical weapons. Among these are the nerve agents of the Novichok class with which Russia attempted to assassinate its former spy Sergei Skripal. Also, it is difficult to say whether or not the initial degradation of the safe substances resulted in the formation of dangerous biological compounds.

Smolander said that the final solution for identifying such dangerous chemicals at the scene is still in the works. It will almost certainly include drones and cloud computing technologies: a drone-borne analyzer would gather the raw data needed for the analysis. The algorithms would then attempt to determine which compound is most similar to the investigated one. "We can't go into more detail about project's technology. I was even surprised that something of this nature required prior committee approval," the professor said.

The project concludes in November 2025, however it is unlikely that the project partners would be able to implement the technology in their respective countries by then.

"When it comes to biological threats, we are essentially starting from scratch. We will almost certainly not have a product or a technology ready to go within three years. That is not the goal of the EDF framework. We are progressing to the prototype stage," Smolander explained, adding that from there, it usually takes additional several years to hone the solution for widespread application.

The TalTech's contribution to the consortium is primarily analytical in nature. "Over the next year, for example, we will establish the conditions under which chemical and biological weapon compounds could be detected, as well as the protocols for collecting samples and making data available. We will also generate data to check the reliability of the technology under development," the professor explained.

Olli-Pekka Smolander Professor of Bioinformatics at Tallinn University of Technology. Source: TalTech

The team will also have other responsibilities over the next three years. For example, they will be developing the necessary Deep Learning (DL) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques.

Smolander urged scholars from other Estonian universities and research organizations to seek EDF funding and, if necessary, cross-border collaboration. "I believe there are interesting opportunities for Estonian universities, such as in IT and automation systems or the natural sciences, but smaller and medium-sized businesses should also take this into account. Our NATO membership is a factor in this respect," he added.

The professor was initially interested in the project's tangible results: "This combination of fields piqued my interest as it touches on biology and machine learning, both of which I have previously worked on. Even if we do not get to a finished technology, it already serves a larger and more practical purpose," the professor said.

In addition to Tallinn University of Technology, other participants in the "Surveillance and Reconnaissance Techniques for Chemical and Biological Threats (TeChBioT)" project led by the Belgium Royal Military Academy (RMA) include the German Ministry of Defense, several Greek R&D companies and technology centers, and Leibniz University Hannover.

Estonia will contribute around €400,000 to the project budget of €4.3 million.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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