TalTech was the first Estonian university to be involved in an international project* funded by the European Defence Fund to explore ways of detecting dangerous chemical and biological substances faster, more accurately, and with greater sensitivity than has been possible so far.
‘In addition to the actual results, it is also important for the technological independence and sustainability of the region,’ emphasises Professor Olli-Pekka Smolander, the principal investigator on TalTech’s side.
At the Estonian side, researchers from the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology and the Department of Software Science of TalTech are participating in the international project ‘Surveillance and Reconnaissance Techniques for Chemical and Biological Threats (TeChBioT)’ with a total budget of 4.3 million euros. TalTech coordinates Work Package 3 of the project, which focuses on the identification of chemical and biological indicators, including the definition of the working environment, sampling, data collection, and indicators for the detection of chemical and biological compounds.
Current technologies have shortcomings
‘We are going to investigate technological options for the detection, identification, and monitoring of chemical weapon agents (CWAs) and biological weapon agents (BWAs) in complex samples because there are currently knowledge gaps in this area,’ Smolander reveals.
According to him, the best existing laboratory technology for detecting these substances at very low concentrations (ppbV) is IMS (ion mobility spectrometry), for example, but there are also other options. Current technologies can detect these compounds in a matter of seconds or minutes, but are unable to detect fourth-generation chemical weapons, including the notorious Novichok-class poisons ('A chain of stupidity': the Skripal case and the decline of Russia's spy agencies | Russia | The Guardian) at extremely low (pptV) concentrations.
In addition, there is currently no capacity to differentiate between biological fragments (residues from the degradation of hazardous compounds) and safe substances. This is echoed by Professor Smolander, who says that one of the biggest challenges of this project is the detectability of biological hazards, or in other words, the ability to accurately identify and distinguish between biological hazards.
‘There are tools for detecting chemical agents but no good solutions for detecting biological agents, and above all, we are missing a tool for identifying both chemical and biological agents quickly,’ Smolander said. Filling these gaps requires the development of new detectors with high sensitivity and selectivity which are based on the best available technologies and are capable of detecting substance concentrations in the pptV (part per trillion) range.
TeChBioT aims to develop a universal technology for the rapid detection and identification of persistent chemical and biological compounds. This hardware will be combined with artificial intelligence and deep learning models, as a result of which the detection and identification of bacteria, fungi, viruses, persistent chemical weapons, and toxic industrial compounds in complex environments become possible based on their unique fingerprint.
The excellent reputation of Estonia in the field of IT was a contributing factor
In addition to the TeChBioT project, 142 other projects participated in the 2021 call for proposals of the European Defence Fund, of which 61 were funded for a total amount of €1.2 billion.
How did Estonian researchers manage to get involved in such an important project? The consortium led by the Belgian Royal Military Academy (RMA) invited TalTech to join the team due to its good reputation in the field of informatics by first approaching Andres Udal, a senior researcher at the Department of Software Science, with a request to involve the local bio-informatics expertise. Through Udal, Professor Olli-Pekka Smolander of the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology heard about the project and accepted the challenge to participate in the project application despite the short time left. According to Smolander, the process of writing the application was a well-coordinated effort. For example, each member of the consortium wrote their own part of the application, after which RMA coordinating the project combined the parts into a coherent whole. However, according to Smolander, getting involved in the consortium a few months before the application deadline was sometimes stressful.
In addition to the time constraint, the application and the ambitions of the project were also affected by the €4.3 million budget, which meant that the consortium had to put focus on most certain or promising technologies that could take the detection of chemical and biological compounds to a whole new level, instead of covering all possible options. In addition to the Belgian Royal Military Academy, another prominent member of the consortium is the German Federal Ministry of Defence (BMVg), which is leading a work package for defining scenarios and identifying chemical and biological threats.
Although this project is funded by the European Defence Fund, propelled by the need created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria and also in England (poisoning of the Skripals with Novichok), the potential applications are not limited to military use.
According to Professor Smolander, this is a dual use project with results that can be used in civilian life – for example, for detecting plant or animal epidemics. Feedback from the EDF evaluators also shows that the outcome of the project can be further developed in civilian fields. While TeChBioT is a research project, which is expected to reach technology readiness level 4 (TRL 4) by the end of the project, its results can be successfully developed further both in the defence and security field and as a spin-off company for civil applications.
A TalTech project led by a Finnish professor
Professor Olli-Pekka Smolander comes from the city of Varkaus in Finland, where he became interested in the defence forces and a career as an officer after graduating from the local upper secondary school, but after military service, he enrolled in the Tampere University of Technology because he was even more interested in science. There, he started his studies in signal processing and studied gene models at the molecular level for his doctoral thesis. After completing his PhD, Olli-Pekka continued his studies as a postdoctoral student at the University of Helsinki, where he participated in several genome research projects, the results of which have been published in the renowned journals Nature and Nature Genetics. Since 2018, he has been working at TalTech, where he also enjoys contributing to the defence and security field and values learning and building professional relationships alongside experienced colleagues in the field. ‘The opportunity to learn alongside seasoned partners is almost as important as the actual content of the project,’ says the professor, commenting on the collaboration with the members of the TeChBioT consortium, and dreaming of becoming a lead partner of the consortium one day.
Earlier accomplishments in this field
A Finnish company called Nvironics has developed a solution, the so-called box on a tripod, which detects biological compounds to some extent, as well as chemical agents. TalTech has also completed projects based on similar technology, e.g. Drug Hunter. It is important to emphasise that the TeChBioT solution is fully mobile, fast, and does not require human contact with the sample. In addition, it aims for the highest possible cost-effectiveness. While R&D in the defence and security domain is important in Finland and the Finns were active in the European Defence Fund round, it is less publicly discussed in Finland for security reasons.
*Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Defence Fund. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.