Deactivating Egypt’s land mines through nitrogen-hungry plants

Egyptian scientists believe they have discovered a method of locating and disarming Egypt’s land mines through agricultural means.

The three-tiered solution involves using a variety of different plants and bacteria in order to locate, penetrate and disarm the mines — a novel solution to a major problem that has plagued Egypt for over half a century.

According to statistical data from the State Information Service, an agency within the Information Ministry, Egypt still has approximately 23 million active land mines — 20 percent of the world’s total — scattered throughout the Western Desert, Sinai and the Suez Canal Zone.

These mines are believed to have been left behind from previous conflicts, such as World War II and Egypt’s wars with Israel. 

Over the past 25 years, leftover mines have killed or injured over 7,000 people. Unfortunately, the way the mines have been planted makes them very difficult to locate and disarm on foot, as detonating a single mine can lead to a series of nearby detonations.

For this reason, researchers from the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology have long sought alternative methods for clearing out the mines, which they believe they have now found.

Mohamed Abu Dahab, an expert of ornamental horticulture from the academy, is the head scientist behind this research. The study actually began in 2004 when Aresa Biodetection, a Danish biotechnology company, discovered that a certain strain of mustard seed transforms from green to red only in the presence of nitrogen oxide, which leaks from land mines.

This phenomenon became the first step of the three-tiered solution, and inspired further research from Egyptian scientists.

Abu Dahab, along with others at the academy, later discovered that after the mines have been located using the seeds, iron-seeking bacteria can be dispersed throughout the area. After some time, these bacteria will eventually eat through the iron casing of the mines, forming small holes that will allow the trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosive gas to escape from inside.

The final step is then to plant sugar beets or tobacco in the area, whose roots contain enzymes that will absorb the remaining nitrogen, ultimately deactivating the mines completely.

Despite extensive experimental research proving this solution, Abu Dahab explains that “in practice, it is still theoretical. But given the situation and the lack of solutions to the problem, it’s the best idea we’ve had yet to work with.”

Nonetheless, the research was conclusive enough for the academy to seek funding for a large-scale demonstration of the project to be carried out on the north coast of Egypt, where mines are prevalent in areas surrounding El Alamein.

The academy is currently awaiting approval from the ruling military council to move ahead with the project.

The procedure, however, is not without criticism. Abu Dahab says that some claim nearby birds and animals will eat the mustard seeds before they have a chance to settle and turn red. Others, he says, don’t believe that TNT can actually seep out of the mines, and that the procedure might create the false idea that the mines have been deactivated.

As for potential concern over the seeds being eaten, Abu Dahab says that in Egypt’s deserts, animal life is minimal, and that the dispersion of large amounts of seeds from airplanes will ensure the proper implementation of the first step.

Sean Sutton, a spokesperson for the UK-based Mines Advisory Group, told SciDev.Net in a recent interview that despite the idea sounding far-fetched, “We just don’t know until we’ve tried it.”

Abu Dahab reiterates that it is the best solution to the mine problem yet, and being an environmentally friendly one is an added bonus.

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