2004 Science, Technology and Environment

Amy Alving

Developed techniques to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to chemical or biological attack and devised a plan to safeguard the Pentagon from chemical or biological attack.

Imagine fortifying a building three times the size of the Empire State Building and safeguarding it against chemical and biological attack. Sound impossible? Thanks to Dr. Amy Alving, not only is it possible—but it is underway.

The Pentagon is the world’s largest building, large enough that the entire U.S. Capitol building could be placed into any one of the Pentagon’s five wedge-shaped sections. With Dr. Alving at the helm of the Special Projects Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a new program will ensure that the Pentagon and other buildings are defended from harmful substances.

DARPA’s Immune Buildings (IB) program is making it possible to detect the presence of harmful substances that might enter the Pentagon and “intelligently” react to contain and remediate the attack. Through a network of sensors within the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, Dr. Alving has developed a way for a building to detect when something is amiss, determine the source and change the ventilation for the building to isolate the threat. The airflow inside the building is controlled to reduce the movement of a chemical or biological agent and seal off the contaminated parts of the building. Even evacuation routes are determined and coordinated in real time.

The immediacy of the threat to buildings was demonstrated in 2001 when anthrax was mailed to the United States Senate. The IB program had begun a year prior to the attack, and the decontamination of the Senate Hart building marked the first successful remediation of a large building, feasible only because of IB development. Prompting a major shift in the way threats were met, IB has significantly advanced our public safety. As the Deputy Director in Alving’s office explained, “Before the IB system, the only thing ‘intelligent’ in HVAC systems was a thermostat.”

Dr. Alving recognized the nation’s vulnerability to chemical or biological attack, specifically those targeting the inside of buildings. Motivated by the risks to public safety that became apparent at the time of the anthrax letters, Dr. Alving is working to ensure that releasing a biological or chemical weapon in a building is no longer a temptation to terrorists.

From a tenured faculty appointment at a major university, where her career, reputation and job security were on solid ground, Dr. Alving came to the public sector. Her move was the government’s gain, as she was the first person to bring both the technological knowledge and the operational savvy to overcome challenges and meet the threat of this attack head on.