This is a guest post by Ariana Rowberry, Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative, Brookings Institution.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is preparing for the arduous task of removing and destroying Syria’s chemical agents and infrastructure. This task faces numerous complications. The chemicals must be sealed and packaged, transported across insecure territory on questionable infrastructure, loaded on two cargo vessels, one belonging to Denmark and one to Norway, at the port of Latakia, which will then transport the chemicals to an Italian port, where they will be transferred to a cargo ship under control of the U.S. Navy.

Here, Syria’s estimated 500 tons of “priority 1” chemical agents—including mustard, VX, and sarin gas and their associated components—will be destroyed at sea, using a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a technology that will dilute the chemical agents to a low-level toxicity. The process of hydrolysis has previously been used in the destruction of chemical agents; however, using such a mobile system at sea is unprecedented. The United Nations decision to destroy Syria’s most dangerous class of chemical agents at sea was made after no country volunteered to host their destruction.

What is a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System and how will it operate at sea?

Hydrolysis System (credit: US Army)

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) was developed by the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) in conjunction with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Development for the system began last winter after senior officials within the Pentagon assembled a senior group to look at technologies that could be applied to Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. Final testing for the system concluded this summer. A total of seven FHDS systems are expected to be developed. Currently, three units exist, two of which will be used in the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. One FDHS is roughly the size of two shipping containers.

The two FDHS will be placed on the motor vessel Cape Ray, a cargo ship that is part of the United States’ Maritime Administration’s ready reserve force. The ship has undergone special renovations at Norfolk, Virginia to host the FDHS capability. The FDHS systems will be placed below deck complete with carbon filters and an analytical laboratory. The FDHS is able to be deployed anywhere in the world within ten days and takes a crew of 15 individuals to operate. Around 100 people will be aboard the Cape Ray, comprised of civilians and contractors from the Department of Defense, in addition to members of the OPCW.

How does the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System Work?

The FDHS uses water, sodium hydroxide (NaOH), sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) and heat to neutralize the chemicals with 99.9 percent effectiveness. The chemicals are broken down in a 2,200-gallon titanium reactor. The system has the capacity to destroy between 5 and 25 tons of chemical agent per day. Therefore, the FDHS has the potential capacity to destroy Syria’s priority 1 chemical agents within 45 to 90 days.

The waste resulting from the dilution of the chemicals will be stored on board the Cape Ray, assuaging environmental concerns that the effluent could be dumped into the sea. The FDHS generates between five and fourteen times the volume of chemical agent being destroyed. After the chemicals are diluted, the effluent can be commercially stored.

The FDHS is self-sufficient, complete with its own power generators, personnel decontamination station and chemical agent filtration system. The FDHS will only need the outside resources of water, reagents and fuel to operate.

Field Deployable Hydrolysis System Site Layout (credit: US Army)


A proven technology or cause for concern?

The international community considered alternative technologies to destroy Syria’s chemical agents, including incineration. However, the FDHS was ultimately selected, given the United States’ extensive experience destroying chemical agents through hydrolysis, including at the former chemical weapons sites at Newport, Indiana and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland during the 2000s. According to officials in the Department of Defense, the FDHS is a “proven technology.”  The only change is that this technology is now mobile.

However, some chemical weapons experts are expressing concern. Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies remarked that, “There’s no precedence. We’re all guessing. We’re all estimating.” Mr. Zilinskas also drew attention to the fact that no assessments of possible environmental impact are being conducted, as would be done if the chemicals were destroyed on land. Despite these concerns, it appears that, given the security and diplomatic complications, paired with a strict time frame for the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, the FDHS provides a relatively low-risk alternative for ridding Syria of its most dangerous chemical agents.