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Chem/Bio Warfare

An Idiotic Exhibit

I suppose this will be sort of a chemical engineering, scale-up, process chemistry post. . .and most certainly will be filed here under the “How Not to Do It” category. The Bellingcat group (Dan Kaszeta in particular) have a very interesting look at a display in “Patriot Park” (a military-themed destination located in a town west of Moscow) of what is supposed to be a small Sarin production facility captured in Syria. Now, it certainly appears as if nerve agents have been used in the Syrian conflict, along with other chemical warfare agents. And the evidence is (from what I have seen) overwhelming that these have been used by the Assad government, with the support of Russia.

Needless to say, that’s not how the Russian government has the story. They have consistently claimed that the investigations into these attacks have been biased, faked, altered (etc.), and that either there have been no chemical munitions used in these attacks or they have been prepared by the anti-Assad forces themselves (and either used on government troops or on their own people as a false flag). The “Sarin production lab” exhibit is in furtherance of the latter story; this is supposedly equipment used by the rebel groups to make their own nerve agent.

As the Bellingcat link shows, though, this makes no sense. You will learn a good deal about the manufacture of Sarin from that article – more, perhaps, than you might have wanted to know, although it’s all very much in the public domain. The parts that are classified tend to be things like “How not to generate a waste stream of hot hydrogen fluoride mixed in with your nerve agent”, and the thought of that mixture should make your hair stand on end. Let’s just say, for starters, that you are not going to run such chemistry in a modified cement mixer.

Not for long, anyway. Neither you nor the mixer will be improved by the HF, which is one of the last things on earth you would want to expose such equipment to, and then there’s the matter of handling the Sarin itself. These process problems have been apparent since the German efforts to scale up nerve agent production during the Second World War, and a good deal of work in the 1950s and 1960s went into figuring out how to avoid them. You do not avoid them with the rig shown at the Russian theme park. It would kill everyone involved, and the only question is which awful thing would happen first.

There’s also the problem that the actual Sarin used in the Syrian conflict has a distinct chemical signature that is the sign of some process-chemistry modifications to the known preparations, and which does not seem to have been taken into account by whoever made this “reconstruction”. No, the Russian exhibit is laughable, not least because so many of its components are (as the post shows) off-the-shelf items procured in Russia. This is a show, and a rather stupid one, which will only sway the opinion of people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Admittedly, that’s a well-stocked category. But consider this: the use of nerve agents is still considered – and rightfully so – as so vile, so inhuman that even the people who are willing to deploy them feel compelled to lie about it.

42 comments on “An Idiotic Exhibit”

  1. John Wayne says:

    “…that’s a well-stocked category.”

    This got a LOL in open office space.

    1. P says:

      This is one of Derek’s best posts ever – bravo.

  2. dave w says:

    Hmmm… wondering if displaying the basics of the process, but omitting the safety precautions, might be an intentional trap, intended to ensure that those (e.g., rebel groups seeking their own stockpiles of such materials) who might take the exhibit for a workable process recipe would poison themselves first.

    1. Scott says:

      Somehow, I’m OK with that.

      The more wastes of oxygen that kill themselves off trying to make the stuff, the fewer people actually thinking it’s a good idea, I hope.

  3. Wavefunction says:

    In Soviet Russia, sarin exhibits you.

    1. passionlessDrone says:

      Thank you for this. +1

  4. kk says:

    How did the Japanese cult do it ?

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Yep. Prepare to have your eyebrows climb right over the top of your head as you read about Aum’s chemical weapons techniques.

      2. matt says:

        Wow! This amazes me. All I remembered about the attack was that people said it could have been much worse. I never heard anything about all the other attacks they carried out. Probably because my American news sources weren’t still covering it by the time of the trials, which is probably where the investigative details were revealed. Really amazing how long they were puttering along, actually carrying out mass attacks that fizzled due to ignorance and incompetence, and actually killing people, without being caught or tracked.

        Makes you almost thankful for cults like Heaven’s Gate and Jim Jones, that only kill themselves for their apocalyptic visions.

        Also staggering that the cult is still around, attracting followers, even after committing mass murder and having a dozen or so members executed for crimes.

        1. loupgarous says:

          The Tokyo subway sarin attack could have been MUCH worse.

          “Aum originally planned to spread the sarin as an aerosol but did not follow through with it. Sarin has an LD50 of 550 μg/kg, corresponding to 38.5 mg for a 70 kg (154 lb) human; however, dispersal issues dramatically reduce its effectiveness.”

          Thank God for Aum’s poor terrorist work ethic.

  5. Nick K says:

    The folks who set this “lab” up weren’t terribly bright. I particularly like the mental image of the cement mixer rotating with the hoses still attached, dragging the drums with them.

    1. electrochemist says:

      My wife is binge-watching the HBO series “Chernobyl.” I overhead some dialog from one episode the other evening: “What’s as big as a house, burns 20 liters of fuel every hour, puts out a shit-load of smoke and noise, and cuts an apple into three pieces? A Soviet machine made to cut apples into four pieces!”

  6. loupgarous says:

    Supposedly, Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons crew (headed by “Chemical Ali”) bought over 200 tons of VX precursors, of which only about 2 tons were accounted for right before we went into Iraq (numbers from Carey Sublette of High Energy Weapons Archive fame, whose day job was with the US Army’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency as a chemical weapons computer analyst).

    At that time it was surmised (by other analysts, not Sublette) that the remainder of the VX precursors went across the border into Syria before we invaded Iraq.
    documents obtained in 2014 under FOIA by the New York Times from the Pentagon don’t show any multi-ton caches of VX discovered in Iraq.

    Not that mixing VX precursors is going to happen in a cement mixer, either. It’s deadlier than sarin by quite a bit, so those rebel cement mixer operators are going to collect their 72 virgins right after they get to work, and oxime AChE reactivators don’t tend to work well for VX intoxication, so only the diazepam and atropine in their “buddy kits” will be effective… not enough for the large exposures you could expect around that cement mixer.

    I miss the good old days when dezinformatsiya was at least plausible.

  7. Dave says:

    I wouldn’t be quite so quick to dismiss the setup as completely impractical. Dangerous? Very! But, it might, just maybe, produce a very impure form of Sarin, at least for a short while.

    Those hoses connected to the cement mixer look to be attacked with quick disconnect fittings (e.g., think hydraulic fittings). Thus, they would be connected, used to charge the cement mixer drum, and then disconnected, before the drum was started rotating to mix the ingredients.

    The gas cylinders, while their purpose is not obvious, may be to simply pressure-charge the blue drums, to force the raw chemicals out, through the hydraulic hoses, and into the cement mixer drum. It is probably easier to use a gas cylinder than to obtain a chemical pump in a war zone (Think of something like a soft-drink dispenser, with a CO2 cylinder, cylinders of syrup, etc.).

    We also don’t know what kind, if any, interior treatment the cement mixer drum may have had applied. Was it painted? Did it have a plastic coating applied? Was it plated? Did it have a rubber bladder inside, possibly produced from a large inner tube? In any case, HF will, almost certainly, chew through it in a matter of hours. But, this may be the kind of facility where it’s set up, run for a batch or two, and then abandoned. It’s definitely not a long term chemical production facility; Then, again, what kind of a fool would want to build a long term chemical production facility in a war zone?

    Yeah, there are still a lot of questions, such as where the DF was sourced from, as well as the purity of the IPA, etc. Then, again, for the quick production of a highly contaminated version of Sarin, well, it might just work, at least for a few small batches.

    And, consider how many Methamphetamine labs are constructed across the world, using equally shady “kitchen chemistry” processes.

    1. Some idiot says:

      Yes, but if methamphetamine leaks, it might be annoying, but it isn’t going to kill you…!

      1. loupgarous says:

        While the original German sarin pilot plant was encased in an air-locked glass enclosure, and manned by workers in full top-to-toe protective gear, some of whom still died (one managed to get an entire liter of finished product inside his protective suit).

        1. Some idiot says:

          Ouch…

    2. loupgarous says:

      You make good points, but still… there are pesticides used commonly in the less-developed world which would be pretty efficient nerve agents, available in ton lots.

      A few years ago, I Googled “amiton” (ICI’s organophosphorus pesticide which Porton Down took over, renaming it “agent VG”) and found it available through alibaba.com in drum and ton lots. Not there any more, which means the Australia Group must have harrumphed. Amiton’s about as toxic as sarin.

      While making sarin in a cement mixer gives you a product which will be a mixture of sarin and other stuff, so any half-way smart rebel chemist will simply go with the organophosphate insecticide his country’s cropdusters spray.

      Sarin pure enough to poison an entire neighborhood in less than multi-ton lots is probably going to have been made in some government’s facilities, or from some government’s stockpiles.

      Though “Bought from China” is another possibility. China’s still selling carfentanil and other fentanyls to drug dealers all over the world, including North America.

      1. dave w says:

        Hmmm… is parathion commercially available these days?

        1. loupgarous says:

          Wikipedia says “it’s banned in nearly all countries”. Which implies some countries permit it.

          And Syria doesn’t exert enough control over rebel country to enforce pesticide bans.

    3. Charles H. says:

      If you’re going to take this seriously, plate the inside of the cement mixer with, I think it was, paraffin (candle wax). Of course, that’s not very tough, but it *is* impervious to HF. *I* sure wouldn’t want to try it, though. And that doesn’t handle the bearings, or other places there could be gas leaks.

    4. Nick K says:

      If you are doing a very exothermic reaction you’ll want to add the reagent gradually with agitation. I can’t see any way of doing that in a cement mixer with attached tubing, as in the photo.

  8. BernYeeCholinesteraseReceptors says:

    HF stands up to metal alloys quite nicely, alloy depending, so that cement mixer is quite adequate and as a display it serves the purpose.

    I also doubt they worry about purity levels for a one step reaction that they then lob at the targets.

  9. Squib says:

    Whoever wrote that is obviously not a process chemist. The exotherm can be controlled by by slow addition of IPA. Although not ideal to run without a jacketed reactor, I’m sure it could be done. A few percent water in the IPA would likely not make a huge difference as the generated phosphoric acid may even form a salt with TEA. If not, it could still be removed by distillation, although distilling in those conditions, or even a well equipped lab, is probably a death sentence in itself. It is most likely a Russian scam, but it is possible a setup like this could be used for a one batch run of impure material.

    Not that I would want to be the operator… or anywhere near the device.

  10. Daniel Jones says:

    Given the creationist “science” efforts to the point of a museum, I always suspected such a thing existed, to be perfectly blunt.

    1. Daniel Jones says:

      Weird to comment to yourself I suppose but it occurs to me that they needed to make the display look stupid both to demean the “yokels” they are trying to frame for the Sarin gas production and to heavily imply that the victims accidentally gassed themselves.

  11. Simon Auclair says:

    Anyone interested in Mans grim chemical war saga should read sipr Stockholm institute for peace research excellent series of studies on “The Problem of Chemical and Biological War”
    Really Ill Shit as the kids would say…

  12. a says:

    You might benefit from asking “qui prodest” a bit more often.

  13. a says:

    You know, Derek, for anyone who is at least somewhat acquainted with Russia and Russian, you deep and blatant russophobia is just totally appalling and disgusting.

    1. loupgarous says:

      It’s not russophobia to denounce clumsy frauds like the “rebel sarin lab”, any more than it’s anti-American to comment on similar frauds perpetuated by the US intelligence community.

      If Derek is guilty of “deep and blatant russophobia” I’ve missed it in nine years of loyal reading of his blog. The real russophobes are those who lie to the Russian people day in and day out because they correctly fear the truth would end their careers.

      1. a says:

        Well, I’ve been reading this blog for a while and there has been always a clear russophobic attitude whenever anything Russia-related is involved. Sadly, this clearly comes from ignorance.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      I have had Russian colleagues, of course, both working with me and reporting to me. And I’ve known a number of Russian nationals outside of work over the years as well. I can assure you that I have no “phobia” of Russians. But I strongly believe that many of the current Russian government’s actions and statements are not things that reasonable people can condone (mind you, at the moment, I think the same thing about many members of the US government as well).

      Calling disagreement with the government’s actions a “phobia” is an interesting way of putting it, one that harkens back to an earlier Russian government’s diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” for those who unaccountably found themselves in opposition to its politics. . .

  14. Ken says:

    one of the last things on earth you would want to expose such equipment to

    Sounds like a new tag, complementing “Things I Won’t Work With.”

    On second thought, there’s probably a huge overlap…

    1. x says:

      I believe “How Not To Do It” is one of Derek’s lesser-used classifications.

      1. fajensen says:

        OTOH – Even if the contraption is totally retarded, that doesn’t exclude the very possibility that some of those way to the left on the IQ-bellcurve terrorist chemical “experts” believe that, this is the way to produce Sarin. Stupid people are the most dangerous of all!

        And, maybe those people have handlers, which are both smarter and more sociopathic:

        If your commitment in life is to poison and kill lots of people and maim the survivors horribly, then it would be simple enough to put the silly contraption near the target, instruct some disposable suckers to don the fashionable not-protective gear, have them mix the isopropyl alcohol and the methylphosphonyl dichloride in the “totally scientific contraption of death ™” and then observe the results with a camera from a very long distance away, upwind!

        The HF mixed in with the hot, fuming, Sarin only helps with the maiming and poisoning, while producing a robust pressure for the rapid & wide dispersion of the mess! The suckers will die horribly, but there are lots more available from wherever that lot came from!

  15. Oni says:

    Well, every country had and has its dark political moments which repeat themselves. For instance “McCarthyism in U.S.” was not a good time to be around either, especially if you were working class origin.

    1. loupgarous says:

      By the time Joseph McCarthy started the Red Scare, Iosif Stalin had been killing and imprisoning millions of actual Communists for decades.

      Stalin, Lenin and the Chekisti were far more ruthless and prolific killers of Soviets than Hitler.

      Perhaps you need another example.

      1. Oni says:

        We can go earlier and mention the atrocities against Native Americans, if you want to have a competition who is good at killing in former times – communism vs. capitalism. You can also sum up the wars enforced or supported just to get some weapons sold in African countries to favour capitalism.
        But that was not my point. The issue here is, I would be very careful to fingerpoint on governments in times where actually money rules the world – true for all countries. Also, disinformation campaigns are common among all big spheres of interest.
        Anything else regarding the composition of the exhibit I totally agree with the author. It’s like watching Walt and Jesse in the first season to cook – simplified (intentionally) for the big audience.

  16. wim says:

    Speaking of idiotic exhibits, I suggest to also check out some of mr. Kaszeta’s other chemistry writings. The guy clearly has not even a high school level of knowledge when his more informed colleagues do not have time to proofread his articles.

    “Cyclohexanol [is] an exotic alcohol”
    “One reason this [sarin hydrolysis product] is present [in environmental samples of a sarin attack site] could be water present in the isopropyl alcohol.”
    https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2019/01/22/isopropyl-alcohol-and-sarin-one-is-needed-for-the-other/

    “HF [is] a potent acid”
    “[the formation of a P-C bond is a] rarely used step elsewhere in industry”
    https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/articles/2018/08/13/nerve-agents-difficult-make

  17. Vader says:

    Oh, excellent. At least one Russian troll in response, and a tu quoque.

    But they illustrate the point I’d like to make: It’s not just people who don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s also people who want to believe.

    1. wim says:

      where’s the tu quoque? i did not say anything about the veracity of the linked article in the post above and fwiw, to me that russian exhibit looks clearly unrealistic in several ways, and likely just serves as propaganda in line with russian foreign policy.
      i thought in the context of a post about how improper chemistry is used to further some political aim, kaszeta’s own inaccuracies elsewhere would be worth a mention.

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