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Catalyst for Change 


chemical weapons symbol

A century ago, 100,000 tons of chemical weapons deployed during World War I inflicted more than one million casualties on the battlefield. Today, targeted assassinations—like the attempt on the life of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with a military-grade Novichok nerve agent in 2020—and counterinsurgency attacks need only trace amounts of chemicals, which are becoming exponentially more difficult to identify as they cross international borders. 

AU chemistry professor Stefano Costanzi, SIS/MA ’18, is developing a new tool that will be a catalyst for change, making it easier to detect chemicals waiting to be weaponized. The software will enable export controllers and border agents, most of whom lack specialized scientific training, to quickly and accurately cross-reference chemicals listed in shipping documents with a schedule of controlled chemicals to determine whether they’re permitted to cross country lines.

The tool aims to automate and simplify a process that’s inherently complicated. Every chemical is identified by its name and registry number. But a single chemical can boast multiple names, and variants have different registry numbers. Furthermore, some lists of controlled chemicals contain entries that identify whole families of related chemicals without explicitly enumerating them.

Costanzi teamed up with the Partnership in Proliferation Prevention, an initiative of the Stimson Center, a DC-based think tank, to develop the tool in prototype. They are seeking second-phase funding for field-testing of the tool, with an eye toward commercial production. 

“With the development of this tool,” Costanzi says, “we can contribute substantially to make the world a safer place.”