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Egyptian Researchers Aim to Clear Landmines Using Bacteria and Plants

March 11th 2012

sugar beets

Egyptians researchers believe that sugar beets like those pictured above can help to clear the country’s stockpile of land mines.

20 percent of the world’s land mines are planted in Egypt, where they have killed or maimed a total of more than 7,000 people in the last 25 years. They are scattered in the western desert and Sinai and pose an enormous impediment to development as well as considerable risks to animal and human safety.

Researchers from the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT), the government body responsible for funding research in Egypt, believe they have found a three-tiered solution to this problem that involves plants and bacteria, but critics doubt whether their laboratory tests will prove effective in the field.

Disarming landmines safely

Many of the land mines left by German forces in the 1940s throughout the Western Desert were laid in such a way that if one in a cluster is detonated, others will be as well. This makes it virtually impossible for human beings to crawl around the land mine field in order to disarm these weapons.

So ASRT researchers sought a method of clearing the land mines that doesn’t cause danger to humans.

Their biological solution involves three stages, according to SciDev.Net: detecting the mines, corroding its iron case, and then neutralizing its explosive power.

Biological weapons of peace

Aresa Biodetection from Norway designed the first phase in March, 2004 by creating a strain of mustard plant (Arabidopsis Thaliana) that turns red in the presence of nitrogen oxide that leaks from land mines. Researchers hoped to spray seeds from an airplane with help from the air force.

But Richard Butler, program Managing of Halo Trust which specializes in disarming hazardous war debris told the paper that birds will eat the seeds. Researchers countered by claiming that the area of northern Egypt where they plan to test the technology does not have a lot of birds.

The next phase involves spreading bacteria that will eat away at the iron casings so that the trinitrotoluene (TNT) gas will be released, but Laurel Anne Hill, moderator of the Minds Clearing Landmines, questions whether Egypt’s land mines have iron casings.

The final stage entails planting plants such as tobacco or sugar beet that absorbs nitrogen, which the Egyptians claim will finally deactivate the mines.

The viability of bio anti-warfare

“We investigated the technique for almost a year before approving large-scale experiments,” Abdelsalam Gomaa, a member of the ASRT committee responsible for approving funds for agricultural research, told SciDev.Net.

They are now waiting for permission from the armed forces to put their ideas to the test near the Mediterranean Sea in northern Egypt.

Sean Sutton, a spokesperson for the UK-based Mines Advisory Group doesn’t want to discount the idea, but he does think it sounds a bit far-fetched.

Regardless of the outcome, we think this is an excellent step in the right direction for Egyptian agriculture and clean tech and we’re eagerly awaiting further news. In the meantime, check out this bamboo minesweeper designed by Afghan designer Massoud Hassani.

Tafline Laylin writes for Green Prophet from where this article is adapted.

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