by Kory Riemensperger
On Sept. 11, 2001, Chris Hodge, ’95 chemistry, was working as a process engineer for Milliken & Co.’s Finishing Plant in Pendleton, South Carolina. He remembers gathering around a television with colleagues to watch news coverage of the terrorist attacks.
At the time, Hodge was weighing a job offer to leave Pendleton and conduct research for the U.S. Navy.
“I knew in that moment I had to take the opportunity to put my skills to use serving my country,” Hodge said. “I had been back-and-forth on leaving before that. What I saw on TV that day sealed the deal for me.”
His decision brought him to the chemical, biological and radiological defense lab of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia. The lab is located on the Potomac River, just an hour and a half south of Washington, D.C.
The military has a number of reasons for conducting research into decontamination technologies, but a major one is cost. The Navy’s equipment is expensive – to put it lightly. An average destroyer-class ship costs about $1.8 billion. To protect these assets from a chemical or biological attack, Hodge’s team researches ways to neutralize harmful agents without damaging property.
In 2015, a decontamination project Hodge worked on for more than a decade was finished and sold to First Line Technology, a private Virginia company. To visualize the final product, Dahlgren Decon, Hodge says to imagine the solid concentrate form of a dishwasher detergent tablet.
“Those little tablets were kind of our design dream,” said Hodge. “Among other performance specifications, the Navy had two practical requirements: it had to be easy to store in small spaces and it had to be able to remain in storage for many years.”
In the event of a chemical spill, biological attack or radiological accident, mixing Dahlgren Decon with water creates a solution that can be sprayed onto an affected surface immediately. In 15 minutes or less, the contaminants are neutralized and dissolve into a harmless soapy mix.
“People have been trying to develop a product with the Navy’s requirements for 50-60 years,” said Hodge. “We were just the first to do so successfully.”
Developing this breakthrough formula was no easy task. Though the team Hodge worked with began research in 1999, it wasn’t until 2005 that they were able to create a prototype that could combat the chemical, biological and radiological agents that the military might encounter. The last decade has been spent improving the price, speed and efficiency of the product.
“Research is a tough career if you’re afraid of failure,” said Hodge. “My team and I might work on 100 things and only 10 even get close to success. With Dahlgren Decon, it seemed like every year we had a breakthrough that moved the project forward and kept us going.”
Still, since Hodge joined the Dahlgren lab, he and his colleagues have filed for more than 200 patents, many of which have seen use in the private commerce and industry sectors. According to him, even Dahlgren Decon has alternative uses that could bring it into homes across the country.
“The ingredients that make it so powerful against harmful biological agents also make it powerful against fungi like mildew and mold,” said Hodge. “Since what we’ve developed won’t damage property, imagine the effectiveness of our solution on a home overtaken with mold damage.”
Hodge speaks fondly of his time as a Tennessee Tech student, crediting his education for giving him the tools for future success. His sophomore year, he was part of a co-op program where he spent a year producing the colorant used in Crayola markers.
“Thinking back, that co-op opportunity was the best way to transition into my industry,” said Hodge. “I was basically an understudy for a process engineer. When I left, my human resources manager told me anytime I wanted a job at Milliken & Co. I just had to give them a call.”
His junior year, when financial difficulties put his college education in jeopardy, he received a Blankenship scholarship from the chemistry department that made it possible to finish.
“I didn’t feel like a student at Tech,” said Hodge. “Professors were quick to look out for me and take me under their wing. I got to know my research advisor, Ed Lisic, and his family really well – we took several trips to present research together.”
Lisic, now director of the Undergraduate Research Program at Tech, was an assistant professor at the time, but he remembers the effect Hodge had on his career.
“Chris was the student that convinced me undergraduate research was something I wanted to pursue,” said Lisic. “He was a joker, a hard-worker and one of the most memorable students I’ve ever had.”
This year, Hodge was one of three Dahlgren researchers to receive a Technology to Warfighter Award. The annual honor is given by the naval base for “direct and significant impact on the warfighter by developing needed capability and transitioning it into operations.”
“That’s one of the reasons I took this job in the first place,” said Hodge. “So to be recognized for fielding a viable product our men and women in uniform can use to keep themselves safe – that means a lot to me.”
Dahlgren Decon Facts
• Has a five- to 10-year shelf life in storage
• Works with any water source – fresh water, salt water, brackish water – and is good for up to six hours after mixing
• Capable of neutralizing Mustard gas (HD) in less than two minutes, Soman nerve agent (GD) in five minutes, VX nerve agent, Anthrax, and Ebola in 15 minutes