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NATO Finances Interdisciplinary Research at the Technion to Protect Water Against Biological or Chemical Terrorism

19 April, 2007

NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is financing an interdisciplinary research, being conducted at the Technion’s Grand Water Research Institute, to protect water supply systems against biological or chemical terrorism. This is the first research of this kind in Israel concerning terror threats against water systems and was born out of the murderous 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the use of anthrax as a biological terror agent. The research integrates mathematical models for the placement of monitoring stations with technological development for identifying and neutralizing chemical and biological contaminants.


“In the wake of the discovery of Al Qaeda documents and plans in Afghanistan, the FBI was alerted that the organization is planning a terror attack on water sources,” relates Prof. Israel Schechter of the Technion’s Faculty of Chemistry. “It became apparent that water distribution systems in the US, Israel and the rest of the world’s developed nations are totally exposed. These systems are situated outside without any protection. We are talking about numerous, large systems. It is not possible to have guards at all of them. A committee of experts studied the problem and presented recommendations to the US Congress. In light of this, the Congress budgeted $608 million towards solving this problem.”


Prof. Schechter started studying the topic and it became apparent to him that a chemical terror attack on the water supply would be very difficult to carry out because of the large dilution factor. “A tremendous amount of poison would be required to poison water systems,” he explains. “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 importance of the subject, the Israel Water Commission decided to participate in financing development together with NATO, the Grand Water Research Institute and the Institute for Future Defense Technologies Research.

Prof. Yechezkel Kashi of the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering is working on rapid identification of pathogenic bacteria in water – such as cholera. The identification is based on DNA sequences. He and his group at the Technion have succeeded in identifying DNA sequences that represent a wide variation of bacterial strains. They have developed technology based on these sequences for accurate identification of bacteria. “This gives us the ability to determine the identity of specific bacteria,” he explains. “Now, we are developing a scanner that is rapid, specific and sensitive in identifying specific bacteria. The development is being carried out in cooperation with Prof. David Walt of Tufts University in Boston.”


The question of where to place the scanner that Prof. Kashi is developing as well as the monitoring and neutralizer facility that Prof. Schechter is developing, was solved by Dr. Avi Ostfeld of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who initiated the project and manages it at the Technion. He 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. Also taking part in the model’s development is Prof. 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.


“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 them. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to intentional intrusion of contaminants.”


The project, which is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2008, has been budgeted for 300,000 Euros.