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The identification and transformation of substances

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Advanced commercially available technologies—such as additive manufacturing (3-D printing), small-scale chemical reactors for pharmaceuticals, and CRISPR gene-manipulation tools—have opened wide access to scientific exploration and discovery. In the hands of terrorists and rogue nation states, however, these capabilities could be misused to concoct chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosive (CBRNE) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in small quantities and in form factors that are hard to detect.
When a Service member suffers a traumatic injury or acute infection, the time from event to first medical treatment is usually the single most significant factor in determining the outcome between saving a life or not. First responders must act as quickly as possible, first to ensure a patient’s sheer survival and then to prevent permanent disability. The Department of Defense refers to this critical, initial window of time as the “golden hour,” but in many cases the opportunity to successfully intervene may extend much less than sixty minutes, which is why the military invests so heavily in moving casualties as rapidly as possible from the battlefield to suitable medical facilities.
Chemical innovation plays a key role in developing cutting-edge technologies for the military. Research chemists design and synthesize new molecules that could enable a slew of next-generation military products, such as novel propellants for spacecraft engines; new pharmaceuticals and medicines for troops in the field; lighter and longer-lasting batteries and fuel cells; advanced adhesives, coatings and paints; and less expensive explosives that are safer to handle. The problem, however, is that existing molecule design and production methods rely primarily on experts’ intuition in a laborious, trial-and-error research process.
The efficient discovery and production of new molecules is essential for a range of military capabilities—from developing safe chemical warfare agent simulants and medicines to counter emerging threats, to coatings, dyes, and specialty fuels for advanced performance. Current approaches to develop molecules for specific applications, however, are intuition-driven, mired in slow iterative design and test cycles, and ultimately limited by the specific molecular expertise of the chemist who has to test each candidate molecule by hand.
DARPA’s SIGMA program, which began in 2014, has demonstrated a city-scale capability for detecting radiological and nuclear threats that is now being operationally deployed. DARPA is building off this work with the SIGMA+ initiative that is focused on providing city- to region-scale detection capabilities across the full chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threat space.