U.S. Army combat vehicle coatings provide chemical warfare agent protection as well as camouflage and corrosion resistance. A team from the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) provided the Army with a more accurate method for evaluating the protective value of coatings purchased from vendors.
When it comes to protecting warfighters from exposure to chemical agents that have contaminated combat vehicles, determining how much agent gets absorbed into the material matters. That’s what researchers at ECBC discovered and helped the Army fix.
The U.S. Army uses over a million gallons of coating a year on its combat vehicles. One of the key jobs of a coating—in addition to providing corrosion resistance and camouflage—
is protecting its occupants from chemical agent exposure.
The key to this protection is to make sure vapor and contact hazards do not linger after soldiers and maintenance personnel believe they have decontaminated a vehicle. What the Army needs is a coating that resists chemical agent absorption in the first place, so that there is no agent left to resurface after decontamination efforts are completed.
Flaws in the Existing Method
For decades, the method for determining the chemical agent resistance of a coating was to place a known amount of chemical agent on a coating sample under engineering-controlled laboratory conditions, wash it with isopropyl alcohol, then measure how much agent vapor re-emitted from the exposed material in the air above it after 22 hours. However, ECBC researchers who specialize in material decontamination have learned that some coating materials can absorb agent and then re-emit it slowly over a much longer period of time.
By reviewing the Army’s current chemical agent resistance method, ECBC researchers determined that the vapor collection accounted for only 43 percent of the agent actually in the coating sample. The remaining 57 percent was still trapped in the material and would continue to come out long after the 22-hour measurement window. The researchers recognized this as a significant flaw and notified the vehicle coatings commodity area manager, John Escarsega at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.
“The commodity area manager realized right away that he was relying on a broken metric and was eager for our help in creating an accurate method for measuring agent resistance and retention,” says Brent Mantooth, Ph.D., a lead researcher at ECBC. “The Army was so concerned, that developing a new agent resistance evaluation method became one of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s top 15 programs for 2015.”
Understanding What a Coating Does
“We had to change the Army’s perspective on chemical agent resistance from presuming that coatings do not re-emit agent to a realization that they do absorb agent and will re-emit agent later,” says Mantooth. “What goes into to the coating eventually comes out, so we had to come up with a way to accurately measure retained agent. We also had to figure out and demonstrate how to accurately measure retained agent in a robust and reliable fashion for many different types of materials and agents.”
From his study of the interaction of liquid agent droplets with surfaces in his other related research projects, Mantooth learned that the amount of time that a liquid agent is permitted to remain on the surface of a coating is a factor in determining how much agent will permeate into the coating material. Also, in order to accurately measure the amount of agent in the coating, liquid agent remaining on the exposed surface has to be removed in a fashion that will not affect the measurement of the absorbed agent. The current test method caused confusion because it did not include removing the agent on the surface.
Reinventing the Evaluation Method
Armed with this perspective, Mantooth and his team set a goal of revising the evaluation procedure using a simple and reproducible method for removing the surface-bound liquid agent so that the agent that had absorbed into the material could be measured. The research team investigated a range of different techniques for removal of surface-bound liquid agent from materials.
Their research culminated through a process of immersing the surface in soapy water along with water rinses. Thus Mantooth and his team were able to remove surface-bound liquid agent before using a solvent to extract agent absorbed by the material. The soapy water immersion process emulates the treatment process typically used by soldiers in the field, and actually extracting the agent from the coating—as opposed to relying on off-gassing data—more accurately accounts for all of the agent that’s been absorbed.
Mantooth’s team then tests the redesigned method for removing chemical agents from items in a variety of conditions. The soapy water rinse and solvent extraction procedure is applied to three vehicle coating test samples for contamination times of five, 60 and 360 minutes. This approximates the immediate, operational and thorough decontamination times in a typical exposure event in the field. The amount of agent recovered from the samples determines the degree to which a coating can be considered agent resistant.
“Put another way,” says Mantooth, “the less agent the coating retains, the more agent resistant the coating is. This translates to lower exposure risks to the warfighter and less work decontaminating the vehicle, which is the true measure of agent resistance.”
Better Protection for the Warfighter
“The warfighter has benefited,” says Escarsega. “The enhanced quality of the coatings we will be getting by applying this new method makes the vehicles and helicopters less contaminated, hence easier to clean. This, in turn, reduces the decontamination burden in combat areas and saves warfighter lives.”
Mantooth and his team are currently finalizing a multi-laboratory verification and validation process to prove the method’s repeatability and reproducibility. After that, the method will be codified in the U.S. Military Standard, or Mil Spec, MIL-DTL-64159, which all vendors of coatings to the U.S. armed services will be required to follow.
Written by the ECBC Public Affairs Office. The ECBC is in the U.S. Army’s principal R&D center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations.