The use of chemical or biological weapons in a conflict zone is a nightmare situation and, should they be used, armed forces need early-detection technology. Eric Damiens, marketing and sales director for Proengin, discusses how his company's products can help users to prepare properly for worst-case scenarios.
How does Proengin's technology work?
Eric Damiens: It uses flame spectrophotometry, which means "analysing the light of a flame". It is based on a universal law of physics: when excited by heat, molecules and atoms will emit light. The spectrum of this light reveals the atomic nature of the gas that is burning in the flame.
In recent years, many emerging technologies have proved promising in laboratories but never passed battlefield test conditions. Proengin detectors are not merely pieces of laboratory equipment that have been ruggedised for use in the field; they have been designed from the outset to be used in the most difficult conditions - they maintain the same level of performance in extreme temperatures, and in humid, dusty or heavily polluted environments.
How did you develop the product?
Founded in 1972, Proengin was originally an R&D company working exclusively for the French Ministry of Defence (MoD). Through this experience, it learned to master some specific technologies, and one of those was the handling and storage of hydrogen gas.
When the French MoD launched the study of its new chemical warfare agent detector, the AP2C, storage of hydrogen was a key element, for which Proengin won the development contract in 1986. Following the success of this work, it acquired the production contract, and consequently the chemical contract. Since then, it has been dealing solely with biological warfare agent detection.
How is the technology tested?
From a chemical point of view, Proengin is able to test equipment using gases that contain the same elements as the chemical warfare agents but which are less dangerous. It can recreate battlefield conditions - heat, cold, shock and vibration - and recently developed its own laboratory where it grows bacteria and other agents to test detectors in a wind tunnel.
Each instrument that Proengin has produced has been individually tested with all those means to ensure their level of performance in the field. It also has feedback from customers, using its instruments in different conditions in Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, the US and each of the 56 countries where its detectors have been deployed.
Which chemical and biological agents does the detector mainly identify?
Identification is not the word I would use - Proengin supplies alarm systems that can sound an alarm as early as possible for a range of potential lethal threats with the lowest possible rate of false alerts. Identification is another process that requires more time and specialised equipment, and in all cases requires a sample for analysis.
Because Proengin technology looks for atoms rather than molecules, its systems can detect the widest range of chemical threats, including agents that are still unknown. The AP2C, for example, was the first to detect cyclosarin (GF) - which at the time was unknown - in Iraqi stockpiles. Other technologies designed to recognise molecules failed to find it, but Proengin's instruments detected it because it contained phosphorus.
Where is the detector being primarily used and by which armed forces?
Our detectors are used by armed forces, police forces, fire brigades and customs organisations in 56 countries over all continents. They can be handheld, operated in moving vehicles, or run 24/7 on naval ships and in critical buildings. They are also used by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, NATO, the Red Cross and the UN. They have recently been used on ships transporting Syrian chemical weapons to their destruction points, and have been praised by their users for carrying out such difficult missions.