Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bonus Process Wednesday: Syrian mobile chemical reactors

I've been meaning to post on this July Wall Street Journal article* on what chemical weapons inspectors found in Syria:
Parked outside the bunker were mobile weapons-production facilities that sat on 18-wheelers. Inspectors would later liken the vehicles to Transformers toys because they looked so ordinary on the outside. As such, they would have been difficult to target from the air. 
“This wasn’t kitchen chemistry,” Mr. Smith recalls thinking. “It was a piece of quality engineering.” 
Syrian guards carried the empty aerial bombs out of the bunker and laid them in a row. The Syrians had stored them without chemicals inside. Mr. Cairns says the bombs contained two internal chambers separated by a thin membrane. When the bombs are filled with chemicals, activating them requires turning a crank attached to the back of the bomb, which rotates a rod inside, pierces the membrane and mixes the chemicals.
As someone who has done some 50-gallon chemistry back in the day, it doesn't surprise me that you could set up a mobile laboratory in a typical trailer. (Heck, they managed to stick a suite of reactors on a ship to neutralize those chemical weapons!) That said, it's probably not particularly comfortable for the operators nor would it be a particularly efficient means of production, I would think.

*Can't get to the article? Search for this headline: "Mission to Purge Syria of Chemical Weapons Comes Up Short"

UPDATE: A couple of nice articles about Scott Cairns, the Canadian chemist working for OPCW. 


  1. Didn't Walter White have similar, to make meth?

  2. Are there any photos or videos of these reactors or are we supposed to believe what we see in that cartoon?

  3. "Inspectors would later liken the vehicles to Transformers toys because they looked so ordinary on the outside."

    Optimus, no!!!

  4. That looks remarkably similar to the cartoons from the great Iraq mobile bio-lab hoax methinks....

  5. Binary works nicely enough for organophosphates (and it is actually the most sensible thing to do, if you are filling CW warheads in the field and want to avoid deadly accidents) but it cannot be used for mustard gas and other chemical weapons.
    What is described in this case is just a specialized filling station. All you need is pumps, and drums of the stuff (that was manufactured and bulk-stored elsewhere). Incomparably simpler and more practical than the nonexistent Saddam's bioweapon fermenters.

    1. Not always the most sensible thing to do, but it's an option. Unitary weapons are undoubtedly simpler to deploy. Binary precursors are quite capable of deadly accidents. In an absolute sense, they're less toxic than the final agent, but QL (binary precursor to VX) has toxicity on par with cyanide and DF (binary precursor for Sarin and Soman) is itself an anticholinesterase. The HF fumes produced as a by product may also be cause for concern. The real advantage to binary chemical agents is for long-term storage. As the US's own experience with the M55 rocket showed, unitary Sarin may corrode its container to the point of leakage.

    2. Also, if the 18-wheeler is moved with both vats even partially filled a road accident or running over an IED creates a large scale CW in-situ.

    3. If you're using CW in a civil war, I would guess that concern for the population is not on even your long list of worries.

      It's only partially relevant, but the Russians did site one of their major anthrax weapon manufacture sites in the middle of a city.

    4. I agree, there is no concern for local population in Syria just like there wasn't any when SU was making anthrax. In both situations there are two chief concerns, a) to keep the program running as efficiently as possible, and b) to make the facility, if discovered, not available for a direct hit.
      For a) this may mean not losing trained operators.
      For b) both the Russians and the Syrians are well versed in the effect of negative publicity in the US when a direct hit causes mass casualties. Hiding BC facilities among the population makes any direct military action ineffective for political reasons.


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