Each year, approximately 300,000 items considered hazardous material-everything from batteries to fuel tanks to parts of nuclear warheads-arrive and depart through U.S. military depots worldwide. Keeping better track of them is more than just an issue of inventory control; it could be a matter of life or death.
Which is why the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency, in conjunction with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN, is developing an advanced identification, sorting and tracking system to keep more intelligent tabs on goods as they move from warehouse to destination. “Right now until a pallet arrives, there is no way to know whether there may be some dangerous stuff contained inside,” says the Defense Logistics Agency’s hazardous-material programs manager, John Frick. “With this system, people will know what is coming and what they need to do to prepare for it.”
Starting in the fall of 2002, whenever any shipment leaves one of the first test depots, it will pass through a special portal affixed with antennae. Any hazardous item included in that shipment will carry a radio frequency transmitter similar to a highway toll tag, which will automatically send an alert over a computer network to the shipment’s destination. The alert may include anything from a basic description of the arriving item (four cases of green paint) to special handling instructions for when it gets there (store in a cool, dry place). The shipment passes through another portal at the destination, which sets off a second alert, announcing its arrival.
Oak Ridge is also developing sensors that will be incorporated into the tags to monitor temperature, humidity and the quality of the air surrounding materials such as toxic chemicals, combustible liquids and compressed gases. Sensor data could help authorities determine if an explosion or leak were imminent, for example, after a train derailed or tractor-trailer jackknifed. “Having this sort of information at hand is important if there ever was an emergency,” says Oak Ridge instrumentation specialist Mark Buckner.
The system may eventually become standard among commercial, as well as military, handlers of hazardous materials. “To have an electronic audit of what went where and to whom would be a tremendous boon,” says Howard Skolnik of Chicago-based Skolnik Industries, which produces drums for hazardous waste. “The paper trail of regulations there is now is mountainous.”