By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Porton Down
Steve Mitchell from the DSTL explains the strippable paints being used on military vehicles
Scientists are planning to develop a paint coating for military vehicles which would soak up a chemical warfare agent and then decontaminate itself.
The technology could protect those operating in or around a vehicle after a chemical attack.
It would be adapted from "strippable" coatings currently used to provide temporary camouflage for vehicles.
The development work is being carried out by the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).
Dr Steven Mitchell, from DSTL's headquarters at Porton Down in Wiltshire, said the next generation of paint could be engineered to absorb chemical warfare agents.
Ultimately, what we'd love to do is develop a paint technology that is 'self-disclosing'
Dr Steven Mitchell, DSTL
Further down the line, scientists are looking into reactive coatings. These would incorporate catalysts and possibly enzymes allowing the paint to "self-decontaminate".
"Ultimately, what we'd like to create is a coating that changes colour to indicate it's been contaminated, decontaminates itself, then returns to the original colour when it's clean," said Dr Mitchell, acting team leader for hazard management and decontamination at DSTL.
"This is a long-term but not unreasonable ultimate objective."
Currently, strippable - or peelable - coatings are used when a new camouflage is required, changing a vehicle's colour from green to, for example, "light stone" in order to blend with desert terrain.
But even if something is not visible from far away, it may reveal itself by reflecting sunlight; the paint can also alter the vehicle's "glint signature", helping conceal it from hostile troops.
Under the skin
DSTL has been collaborating on the technology with industry partner AkzoNobel Aerospace Coatings.
"There are a number of advantages to this technology. One is its flexibility; it is easy to apply and easy to remove. You can change your colour or your signature in theatre in a relatively straightforward manner," Dr Mitchell told BBC News.
The coating is applied just like normal paint, often using commercially available spray guns.
The paint can be used to temporarily change a vehicle's camouflage
"It's a single pack emulsion. It looks much like paint you'd find in a DIY store for painting your house. So you could apply it with a paint brush, or you could apply it with a roller. It's really flexible," Dr Mitchell explained.
"That's important for potential use in theatre because you might not have a sophisticated paint spray system available."
On the grounds of DSTL's headquarters, Dr Mitchell demonstrated how to remove the coating from a battlefield ambulance which had been painted for desert camouflage.
The coating on a rear door had been pre-scored with a knife; Dr Mitchell reached up to the raised tab and peeled back the rubbery skin by hand. The coating came away easily and largely in one piece.
While paint remained stuck to some raised areas such as bolts, he said remaining residue could be removed with a water power washer.
Before long, the whole door was stripped to the vehicle's dark green base colour. Dr Mitchell squashed the peeled coating into a lump and dropped it on the grass.
Some other coatings require a caustic wash to remove, which means care has to be taken when disposing of the waste.
But this one can be disposed of as general waste as long as it is not contaminated.
Dr Mitchell said DSTL was currently working in partnership with industry to develop a version of the coating that would absorb the vast majority of a liquid chemical warfare agent.
Dr Mitchell wants to develop a coating that is 'self-disclosing'
"That helps prevent the contact hazard. It also helps prevent people touching the surface and spreading the contamination," he explained.
Liquid decontamination would still be required; some parts of vehicles, such as tracks and running gear, are not suitable for the application of a coating.
"Ultimately, what we'd love to do is develop a paint technology that is 'self-disclosing' - when it becomes contaminated, perhaps it changes colour to tell you it is contaminated with a chemical warfare agent," Dr Mitchell said.
"Maybe we'd also like to put some chemistry into the coating that would then react with and decontaminate the agent itself. And then perhaps even a colour change to tell you that process has been successful and the agent has been destroyed."
However, he stressed that these were long-term research aims: "Clearly, there are a lot of technical hurdles to be overcome to develop something this sophisticated," Dr Mitchell said.
Although current research is focussed on chemical warfare agents, scientists have also been looking at approaches that might tackle radiological and biological agents.
Dr Mitchell was demonstrating the strippable coating technology during the opening of a new energy-efficient building at Porton Down.
The Earl of Wessex, Prince Edward, opened the Minerva Building at the site near Salisbury last week.
The earl was given a tour and was presented with examples of DSTL's work, including cutting-edge research designed to counter Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
He also presented Operational Service Medals for Afghanistan to five DSTL staff who recently returned from providing scientific advice on the frontline.
DSTL scientists and analysts are routinely deployed to theatre in support of operations.
The five staff were Matthew Brookes, a programme leader; Jarrod Cornforth, an operational analyst; Robin Hiley, a chief scientist; Chris Morriss, a concepts adviser and Amy de Vries, a research psychologist.
DSTL chief executive Frances Saunders commented: "These members of staff have gone the extra mile while working alongside our armed forces on the frontline, providing life-saving solutions and advice within extremely short timescales."
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