It’s not every day an engineer gets to do his or her part to save the world, but at the University of Central Florida, Subith Vasu is doing just that.
The assistant mechanical and aerospace engineering professor is trying to figure out how long it takes the toxic chemicals from weapons of mass destruction to break down after they’ve been destroyed with bombs.
Quick disclaimer: He doesn’t have any toxic chemicals or bombs on campus. Vasu studies nontoxic materials that share similar chemical structures as some of their toxic cousins such as sarin, a type of nerve gas. These cousins are called simulants and are safe, he said.
“It’s critical to understand how much explosives to use and what kind of effect it is going to have,” Vasu said of destroying caches of chemical weapons. “Imagine if you found a stockpile in a building in the middle of a city. You don’t want to destroy the city in the process of trying to keep people safe from the weapons. That’s where my work comes in.”
In his lab, Vasu uses a shock tube to mimic the quick high pressure and temperatures a bomb would have on the simulant. He places a sample of the chemical in one chamber and then sends in a shock wave. Using infrared laser-absorption spectroscopy he can track the decomposition of the original chemical so he can see how it happens and how long it takes for the chemical to break down to its base elements.
It’s information the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency wants so it can create computer simulations. The agency, which falls under the Department of Defense, was formed in 2005 and its mission is to “keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists and other enemies by locking down, monitoring, and destroying weapons and weapons-related materials.”
The agency recently recognized Vasu with a 2015 DTRA Young Investigator Award to start his research.
“It’s good to be part of this important program,” Vasu said. “My research at this moment in time is quite relevant given the terrorists groups out there and our need to keep our world, our families safe.”
The duration of the initial award is three years with an option for two additional years.
Vasu has earned several grants in the past year, including a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate using supercritical CO2, a fluid state of carbon dioxide, in power plants instead of steam. He also earned a 2015 American Chemical Society’s Doctoral New Investigator Award to study the chemical kinetics of gasoline mixtures used in car engines.