DUGWAY PROVING GROUND — It's unique in the world, the largest chamber constructed for this purpose and represents a step up in the nation's defense against deadly biological agents such as anthrax, plague or ricin.
With an official ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, the intricate, expensive system housed at Dugway Proving Ground is a $39 million investment for the U.S. Department of Defense and the culmination of a 2002 directive that ordered more biological warfare readiness for the country.
Shiny, complicated and strictly controlled for humidity, temperature, airspeed and for the "dissemination air" that is pushed into it, the Whole System Live Agent Test had its coming out party at the West Desert facility, offering people a rare — and one time chance — to step inside its walls before it ultimately plays host to all manner of biological weapons.
"We have never had a chamber large enough to do whole system testing," said Douglas Andersen, chief of the life sciences division at Dugway's West Desert System.
The chamber tests how well other biological agent detectors do the job they were designed to do.
Previously, biological agent detection systems had to be tested component by component to determine how efficiently they functioned. Typical biological agent detection systems used by the military are about the size of refrigerator and this new chamber is big enough to accommodate two at the same time — so they can be compared side by side, as well as their ability to perform independently.
"We can do those tests and safely challenge or expose a real system to agent in the air and see if it will respond," Andersen said.
The system operates in a building that is strictly engineered at "negative" air pressure so no agent escapes. Air drives aersolized particles into the main chamber of Whole System Live Agent Test under an array of conditions the military can simulate. The Army can design a test to determine how a biological warfare detection device operates in smoke, for example, or how proficient it is under high humidity.
Its features have fancy names, such as Aerodynamic Particle Sizer or Ultraviolet Aerodynamic Particle Sizer, which Dugway's Wing Tsang said makes the system uniquely valuable from a detection standpoint — operators can actually manipulate the size of the particles of biological agents that enter the chamber.
"A few years back, no one could control aerosol size and we have gone from no control to sudden precision," he said.
Trials of live agent introduced into the new chamber can be conducted under circumstances in which the aersolized particles are taken down to minute quantities — thus measuring a system's ability to react under extreme circumstances in which deadly agents are widely dispersed.
Dugway's commander, Col. Ronald Fizer, said it is impossible to overestimate the value of the chamber, which is slated to go live some time in the next several weeks.
"It is a huge deal," he said. "We have not had the ability to evaluate these systems in a live environment before. This allows us to have a high degree of confidence in our systems."
Both Fizer and Carmen J. Spencer, joint program executive officer for Chemical and Biological Defense, said it is paramount that biological agent detection systems operate at the highest efficiency given the evolving nature of global threats.
"The world is a far different place than it was 20 years ago," Spencer said. "There's an ever-increasing awareness of the potential of a biological threat against nation states by non-nation states."
Fizer said Al-Qaida has made no secret of its desire to get its hands on biological agents and biological labs are high value targets for multiple terrorist cells.
"Before we didn't have a chamber that could test these systems. This gives us that readiness," he said.
Contributing: Jed Boal