Agent Fate exceeds expectations

Feb 20, 2009

Ongoing research at Kettering University establishes a better understanding on the reach of potential chemical contamination in a simulated environment.

The Love Canal. Some readers might recall the name of this infamous, chemically contaminated area in the Niagara Falls area of New York. More than 21,000 tons of caustics, alkalines, fatty acids and chlorinated hydrocarbons deposited from industry in the area for many years comprised the toxic tonnage upon which schools and homes were built.  Needless to say, a great many suffered from health issues directly related to this dumping.

It took many years to determine the extent and distance of this contamination zone. Today, contamination is something all countries must be aware of, particularly as it relates to terrorism. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for experts to determine the extent of a contamination zone after toxic chemicals are released into the environment.

But for Kettering University’s Chemical Agent Fate Research Project, this is no longer a mystery.

The project, headed by Dr. Homayun Navaz, a professor in the University’s Mechanical Engineering Dept., continues to make significant advances through the use of computer-based mathematical simulations. In February, Navaz and his team of professionals, researchers and cooperative education students conducted a major computer simulation that shows the spread of a chemical element over a metric acre of land under certain environmental conditions.  

The project’s computer-based mathematical models help to predict the spread and persistence of chemical elements in the air, on the ground and on other surfaces. Some of the project goals are to establish the length of time chemicals remain active following release and create simulation scenarios utilizing mathematical analysis to predict what could happen with chemical releases to assist officials in taking preventative actions.

To date, the project is highly successful in predicting how long chemicals remain harmful after deployment. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) continues to utilize new advancements in the physical transfers of chemical weapons based on results from this project.

The team uses many experimental results to help validate the computer models. The large-scale demonstration scheduled for February will implement all of the validated sub-models. In essence, the team will use computer simulations and contaminate one metric acre with chemical elements. This metric acre will comprise natural surfaces such as hills and undulating terrain.

In addition, the contaminant concentration profile distribution at various distances from the source (otherwise known as the event) and the profile’s variation in time will determine the magnitude and seriousness of the threat. The model also accounts for environmental factors such as wind, turbulence and temperature, thus providing a more comprehensive simulation.

“If we can show that contamination is still dangerous some distance from the point of the source or event in this scenario, we can do it for any size of area, given the robust nature of the computer mathematical models,” Navaz explained.

“The capability of showing how chemical contamination spreads and the degree of danger it presents at varying distances from the original point of release is a major achievement for military personnel and governments, and gets us another step closer to effectively dealing with and eliminating potential chemical dispersion,” he added.

However, Navaz explained that these computer simulations require a great amount of time, which makes it necessary to develop a practical platform that can perform these predictions in real time based on local environmental conditions. To help with this aspect of the project, Navaz’s team created an Artificial Neural Network (ANN) program that incorporates a massive library of off-line results and outcomes of these computer simulations.

The ANN program is then loaded onto a computer system than is capable of acquiring environmental data through sensors in real time and perform instantaneous predictions of toxic chemical concentrations at any given distance from the source. After this function, an artificial intelligence (AI) program can make recommendations to the field commanders based on these analyses.

Ultimately, Navaz and his team feel that have taken a large step in building the infrastructure necessary to predict the threat associated with the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. On a larger scale, this simulation can also be expanded to biological spores, thus providing a more comprehensive capability to prevent disasters of a chemical or biological nature.

“We hope to achieve additional federal funding with continued support from Provost Michael Harris, who has been instrumental in helping to secure the budget last year,” Navaz said. “Additional funding will help us link our project with national programs and expand the scope of our work to more application-based opportunities,” he added.

Another important aspect of continued funding and project development is the impact this effort has on the Michigan and Flint economy. With Michigan’s unemployment rate hovering around 10.6 percent as of December 2008, the Agent Fate Project continues to provide employment opportunities to professionals and cooperative education students.

Navaz said that small businesses in downtown flint—where the project hosts an office—receive the benefit of professionals who eat at restaurants and shop at local stores. “It’s important to the State of Michigan to develop businesses that revolve around the state-of-the-art technology employed by the project,” Navaz said.

For Kettering cooperative education Senior Jennifer Myers of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who majors in Mechanical Engineering and Biochemistry, the project presents a unique opportunity to gain important experience on a challenging effort. 

“Everyone contributes new ideas, methods and experiments and we all work as a team,” she explained. “The project has also helped open research opportunities to undergraduate students,” she added. Some of her duties with the project include work on the secondary evaporation and vapor diffusion studies.

Future plans for the project include submitting a proposal to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to examine the contact hazard of multiple surfaces with skin and protective equipment. The goal for this phase of the project is to study thicker agents that have the ability to remain on surfaces for longer periods of time and pose a contact hazard.  In April, Navaz will also travel to California as an invited guest of DTRA to help chart next year’s course. 

“The success of this project is due to the hard work and dedication of team members,” Navaz said, adding that the Kettering co-op students assigned to the project “have been instrumental in producing experimental results.” Currently, a number of faculty, post-doctoral research fellows and Kettering co-op students work on the team as noted below: 

  • Dr. Ali Zand, professor of Biochemistry;
  • Dr. Bojan Markicevic, Kettering research scientist;
  • Dr. Hongyang Li, post-doctoral fellow;
  • Dr. Yuri Sikorski, assistant professor of Physics;
  • Dr. Matthew Sanders, professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering;
  • Steve Danforth, a local IT contractor;
  • Dr. Lars Beholz, adjunct faculty Kettering Chemistry Dept.;
  • Mazyar Amin, a Ph.D. candidate;
  • Elizabeth Bowden, Kettering co-op;
  • Jennifer Meyers, Kettering co-op;
  • Kathryn Hoff, Kettering co-op;
  • Ewen Chan, Kettering co-op;
  • Kristina Kamenski, Kettering co-op;
  • Travis Bethel, Kettering co-op;
  • Vinit Javali, Kettering co-op;
  • Petros Gheresus II, Kettering co-op;
  • Kevin Xie, Kettering co-op,
  • Albert Nowakowski, Kettering co-op; and
  • Charlos Rincon and Aeron Grady, previous project associates. 

Since 2005, the Chemical Agent Fate Project at Kettering has received more than $3 million in federal funds and in 2008 and 2009, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) and Senator Carl Levin have added an additional $1 million and $1.6 million earmark in the Defense Appropriations Bill respectively.

For more information on this project, contact Dr. Homayun Navaz at

Written by Gary J. Erwin