Locally developed mobile chemical and biological lab ready for SAMHS


Development, testing and evaluation are complete and the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) now has a fully equipped chemical and biological analysis mobile laboratory further boosting its arsenal of life saving equipment.

The MCBDL (mobile chemical and biological detection laboratory) is a product of Protechnik Laboratories, a company in Armscor’s portfolio of defence science and technology institutes. It worked in conjunction with TFD, a South African lead logistics provider, to complete the first phase of the MCBDL in 2011 after which the unit was deployed at Armscor’s Alkantpan test range for evaluation.

A spokesman said the mobile lab “performed well in the rugged Northern Cape environment”. Additionally, and more importantly, it integrated “seamlessly” with 7 Medical Battalion Group’s incident detection group during a mock chemical weapons attack exercise.

The evaluation led to additional client requirement being identified. These included the need/means to transport consumables and services for the laboratory, a decontamination system for waste water and personnel, a rest and administration area, as well as additional ancillary requirements to ensure independent operation of the laboratory.

The second phase of development saw these requirements incorporated as well as a support container system. This work was completed and tested last year.

The laboratory consists of two standard ISO containers: the laboratory and a support container deployed close together, with tenting covering the space between them to provide a sheltered area for personnel to relax and carry out routine tasks. Both containers have been designed to be fitted onto and transported by IVECO trucks adapted for roll-on roll-off systems. This means the MCBDL fits into 7 Medical Battalion Group’s available infrastructure, practices and SOPs.

Making the MCBDL different from similar defence laboratories is that it is not just a system based on field portable detection. It is, a Protechnik spokesman said, a mobile laboratory containing the same equipment found in a static research facility.

The lab was designed to provide a safe analytical environment, where the focus is not on the equipment but on the infrastructure housing it. This means additional equipment can be integrated into the lab as needs change, for example for HIV and tuberculosis diagnostics or for analysis of environmental samples for pesticides.

Scientists do not wear protective clothing in a tented structure adjacent to the laboratory. They will either wear gowns and respirators or level B chemical suits, depending on the threat identified in the field. A scientist enters the lab via an access-controlled double door changing cubicle. Access is granted by a computerised system only if safe pressure levels are present inside the laboratory. Once inside the cubicle the pressures of the three compartments may be seen in a digital display system. When the pressure of the lab has normalised the scientist can enter either the preparation or analytical compartment.

Samples are introduced from the outside by the 7 Medical Battalion Group detection team via a pass-through box system, a design unique to this lab. The pass-through box is evacuated passively and air is filtered using gas mask filter canisters, manufactured by Hazmat, a division of Armscor. Similarly, all air entering and leaving the lab is filtered using a gas mask canister array (also unique to this project). These Armscor manufactured off the shelf items can be acquired and changed rapidly during laboratory operation, reducing downtime.

The sample is then either placed in a class 2 biosafety cabinet, or class 3 glove-box; depending on sample type and risk status. The sample is then processed using standard scientific methods developed at Protechnik Laboratories. Once the sample is processed it is passed to the analytical compartment, via a pass-through chamber, for analysis.

Scientific investigations/methods that can be performed in the MCBDL include bacterial cell culture; animal cell culture in a dedicated carbon dioxide incubator; cytotoxicity testing; light and inverted microscopy; bacterial staining; microbial metabolic testing; real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction; ELISA; solid phase chemical extraction; basic chemistry sample preparation, and gas chromatography – mass spectrometry.

As far as emergency and safety is concerned the laboratory is under negative pressure with directional airflow to prevent the escape of harmful chemicals or pathogens. Air entering the lab is HEPA filtered and air leaving the lab is HEPA-carbon filtered. Water leaving the lab is filtered through particle filters, carbon filters and then chemically treated. Solid waste is autoclaved inside the laboratory before it is removed. Besides engineering controls, doctrine for safe use, for example, PPE type and use has been established for both chemical and biological work.

A chemical shower is fitted to the laboratory exit. A scientist is decontaminated chemically and washed down by high pressure sprayers fitted to the shower. Water from this process is collected and treated prior to disposal.

In the event of gross contamination within the laboratory, the container may be fumigated with chlorine dioxide gas, using a specially designed fumigation port fitted to the outside of the lab.