Public Release: 

UTSA professor receives Department of Army grant to detect chemical terrorist attacks

University of Texas at San Antonio

(Oct. 12, 2015) -- At least one million people have died in chemical warfare since World War I, and with conflict continuing to rage in Syria and all over the world that number grows every day. UTSA associate professor of mechanical engineering Kiran Bhaganagar has received a $260,000 grant from the Department of the Army in an effort to slash that number significantly with a new method of predicting the path of weaponized chemical agents, which would allow for swifter evacuation.

"These chemical agents are a huge threat to the health and lives of so many people," Bhaganagar said. "They can spread a long distance and kill a lot people."

Chemical agents are different from explosive chemicals, which cause shear, localized destruction through force. Bhaganagar and her team are targeting chemical weapons such as the nerve agent Sarin, which has been used in many attacks in the Syrian civil war and can diffuse into the atmosphere and spread for hundreds of miles.

With Daniel Pack, chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering, she's created a method of tracking every environmental condition that could effect the direction and movement of the released chemical agent. Weather is a big factor, naturally, but Bhaganagar says there's more to it.

"It's not as simple as looking at a weather map," she said. "Humidity, wind temperature, turbulence and time of day--all these things come together and make a difference."

Pack, who has extensive experience in flying unmanned aerial vehicles, has programmed drones that can detect all of these conditions. The data his devices collect will be fed wirelessly into a massive supercomputer using a program designed by Bhaganagar that allows them to use complex 4-D equations to map where the chemical agent is heading, giving anyone in the area a heads-up to evacuate.

"We have to be faster than the bad guys to stop them," she said. "Fast response is the key, while also not compromising accuracy."

Bhaganagar has already started work with a team of UTSA mechanical engineering graduate and undergraduate students.

"This is a necessity," she said. "Security is a big problem right now and this is a project that's really challenging. It's not enough for one particular specialty to solve."

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