May 17, 2007 Technion Protecting Water from Biological and Chemical Terrorism

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Schechter, Ostfeld & Kashi
Schechter, Ostfeld & Kashi

NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is financing interdisciplinary research being conducted at Technion’s Grand Water Research Institute.

The Technion-led project examines ways to protect water supply systems against biological or chemical terrorism and is the first research of its kind in Israel. The project’s main focus is to eliminate terror threats against water systems.

Using a wide-range of Technion expertise in the fields of civil and environmental engineering, chemistry, and biotechnology, Technion scientists have integrated mathematical models to determine the ideal placement of monitoring stations with advanced technology to identify and neutralize chemical and biological contaminants.

“It’s become apparent that water distribution systems in the US, Israel and the rest of the world’s developed nations are totally exposed terrorist attacks,” relates Professor Israel Schechter of Technion’s Schulich Faculty of Chemistry. “We are talking about the exposure of numerous, large systems – it’s just impossible to have guards protecting all of them.”

The United States government agrees with Schechter’s assessment. A committee of experts studied the problem and presented recommendations to the US Congress. In light of this, Congress assigned the equivalent of Canadian $663 Million towards solving this problem.

In his initial thoughts, Professor Schechter was convinced that a chemical terror attack on water supplies would be very difficult to carry-out because of the incredible volume of poison required to contaminate even a small water supply. It wasn’t until he shifted his thinking that he realized the imminent threat.

“I tried to think like a terrorist and then I discovered a way in which only a handful of a certain type of poison could be put into water sources and cause mass human fatalities despite the dilution factor. Therefore, I began to develop a device that can detect chemical poisoning of water and neutralize it.”

In light of the project’s importance, NATO, along with Technion’s Grand Water Research Institute and the Institute for Future Security Research, as well as the Israel Water Commission, decided to finance its research and development together.

Professor Yechezkel Kashi of Technion’s Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering is currently working on methods of rapid identification of pathogenic bacteria in water – such as cholera. Based on the recognition of DNA sequences, Professor Kashi and his group at Technion have succeeded in identifying DNA sequences that represent a wide variation of bacterial strains. They have gone a step further and developed technology based on these sequences that can eventually be used to accurately identify a multitude of bacteria present in water supplies.

“This gives us the ability to determine the identity of specific bacteria,” he explains. “We are now developing a scanner that is rapid, specific and sensitive in identifying specific bacteria. The development is being carried out in cooperation with Professor David Walt of Tufts University in Boston.”

The question of where to eventually place Professor Kashi’s scanner and Professor Schechter’s monitoring and neutralizer facility to detect and combat terror threats on water supplies was solved by Dr. Avi Ostfeld of Technion’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Water supply systems are built over tens, sometimes hundreds, of kilometers,” says Dr. Ostfeld. “They are made up of pipes, tanks, pumping units and consumer connections. It is impossible to physically protect all of them. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to intentional intrusion of contaminants.”

Dr. Ostfeld, who initiated the project and manages it at Technion, built a mathematical model that simulates water flow, pressure, and contaminant movement in a water system for the 100,000 water lines of the city of Tel Aviv. This was accomplished in cooperation with Engineer David Jackman, director of the Water and Sewage Division of the Tel Aviv municipality and Professor Kevin Lansey of the University of Arizona. In accordance with the model, a decision will be made as to where in the water supply system the monitoring station will be placed.

The Tel Aviv project, which is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2008, has been budgeted for Canadian $450,000.

Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel’s leading science and technology university. Home to the country’s winners of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, architecture, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine. The majority of the founders and managers of Israel’s high-tech companies are alumni. Founded over 60 years ago, the Canadian Technion Society has been one of the university’s most reliable and prolific supporters, having raised upwards of $70 million to date.

May 17, 2007