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Why are Nerve Agents so Difficult to Make?

August 13, 2018

By Dan Kaszeta

Nerve agents, both in the form of Sarin in Syria and in the form of the so-called Novichok A-234 in the UK, continue to claim both victims and headlines. A recurring theme, aired early on in the Syrian chemical war, and oft-repeated, is that somehow nerve agents are easy to make. Many conspiracy theories and “alternative narratives” rely on the fact that someone other than the Syrian or Russian state made the nerve agents in question. These theories, in turn, need Sarin or Novichoks to be easy to manufacture in order for there to be a remote chance of their being true.

None of the chemical warfare agents in the nerve agent category are easy to manufacture, and none of them lend themselves to a small improvised process. The idea that there is such a thing as “kitchen Sarin” is laughable to those of us familiar with how Sarin has actually been made in the real world. Manufacturing Sarin or other nerve agents is difficult for many reasons. It is not merely a matter of chemistry. It is also a matter of chemical engineering and management.

For the majority of this article, I use the example of Sarin. I do this because, for better or for worse, the Sarin production processes are those which are the most documented in the public domain. A handful of the nerve agents are easier to make than Sarin, although they tend to be ones that are less deadly and less useful as weapons. Most of the nerve agents are more difficult than Sarin. One that is easier than Sarin is Tabun, the original German nerve agent first manufactured in the late 1930s. Making Sarin is not the logical entry point into nerve agent manufacture. Manufacture of Tabun is somewhat easier. This point is relevant when investigating claims of improvised manufacture of Sarin or Novichoks – the question of “why didn’t he/they make Tabun?” is a useful exercise. VX is a bit easier than Sarin, so there’s always that question as well.

Ingredients

You do not just run down to the shop to get what you need to make Sarin or other nerve agents. The majority of the precursors are either not commercially made at all or are “scheduled” substances that are controlled by arms control treaties, particularly the Chemical Weapons Convention and relevant laws.

As an example, let us look at Sarin. There’s only two ways to make a Sarin moleucle. One is by reacting the critical precursor methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) with isopropyl alcohol. This yields a mix of Sarin and hydrogen fluoride (HF), a potent acid. The other way is by the so-called “di di” reaction, which reacts equal amounts of DF and methylphosphonyl dichloride (DC), which yields Sarin and hydrogen chloride (HCl), also a powerful acid. DC is the direct precursor to DF. You need to have DC to make DF. It is difficult to obtain DC in any useful quantity without raising alarms. One must usually undertake to manufacture DC. There are number of production pathways to get to DC, but all of them require sourcing ingredients. Given the likely wastage and yields, it is difficult to envisage a Sarin production scheme that uses less than 9 kg of input ingredients for every kg of Sarin produced. If you compile the various chemical inputs needed for Sarin, or any of the other nerve agents, it comprises a list of substances, only a handful of which can be readily procured. The rest have to be made as part of an overall production process.

Process

A key mistake made by amateurs is thinking that, somehow, an ingredient list is the same thing as an industrial process. Nobody would consider a list of culinary ingredients as the same thing as a recipe. The next most common mistake is thinking that a list of basic steps or a notional block diagram is an adequate description of the chemical engineering needed. Many of the processes required are simple in their application of chemistry but extremely difficult to execute in any type of quantity or quality in terms of chemical engineering. Some of them need to be done remotely and/or under an inert atmosphere in order to be done effectively. Other processes involve the handling of corrosive, toxic, and/or flammable ingredients. Some, like “DF”, are in themselves mild nerve agents. Most of the processes and procedures do not like gratuitous contact with air or moisture. Again, there is the example of DF, one of the Sarin precursors. It is highly reactive with water. Many precursors are solids and need to be turned to liquid for reactions. A high percentage of the intermediate steps produce heat, which are likely to need cooling.

The G-series of nerve agents (the family originally developed by the Germans, which includes Tabun, Sarin, and Soman) require handling of extremely dangerous substances under precise combinations of high temperature and pressure. For Sarin and Soman, this includes handling HF, which is extremely dangerous. Another example from the manufacture of G-agents is the problematic alkylation step. This particular process adds a methyl group or an ethyl group to the central phosphorous to form a P-C bond. This is necessary to create the nerve agents, but this is a rarely used step elsewhere in industry. Historically, there was much difficulty in getting this step right, and that knowledge base is either lost to history. Much of it remains classified. Most of the practical knowledge of technique and process is lost to us.  This is because much of this knowledge was in the heads of people now dead.  Some of it was in notebooks that are largely destroyed or permanently sequestered in classified archives.

Trial and Error

It should be noted that every single manufacturing process for nerve agents has been the subject of significant trial and error. In some cases, the trial and error took years and took a toll on personnel and expensive equipment. As a benchmark for comparison, it took 7 years for the US to get viable large scale production facilities for making Sarin up and running after the Second World War. The war in Europe ended in May 1945. The US and UK had the scientists who invented Sarin, samples, and significant documentation. There’s a series of documents called the British Intelligence Operations Sub-Committee reports, which report the systematic debriefing of the German nerve agent scientists. It is clear from reading these documents that the West quite quickly understood the science. They just did not understand the engineering to put it into operation. The US military threw many millions of dollars and many hundreds, if not thousands, of personnel at the problem of Sarin production. Yet the first actual large scale production run of Sarin did not begin until July 1952.  This first batch took 13 months to get right. They did not start the second batch until 1954. As another example, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, whose manufacturing effort was very large, had to make a number of attempts to make Sarin. Their first effort only yielded 20 grams of Sarin. It took them another year before they could make enough for their Matsumoto attack.

The idea that some people somewhere in a shed will get it right on the first try is risible.

Purity of the inputs

The various odd discussion groups online, and the half-dozen or so strange books that purport to contain nerve agent processes, rarely if ever measure cleanliness and purity. They usually blithely assume that each step of the process starts with pure laboratory grade materials. Such sources do not account for purifying the base ingredients or the intermediate products. If you are going to make nerve agents in an efficient manner, the ingredients used need to be pure. Various impurities and contaminants, even such commonplace ones as moisture, will throw off a production step, reduce the purity of the product being made for the next step, contaminate the batch with by-products, cause an unsafe reaction to occur, or possibly ruin the whole batch and make the whole process more difficult. If you just go from Step 1 to Step 7, your impurities from the previous steps just build up along the way and you may end up with useless soup, not a batch of Sarin. It is not a Step 1, Step 2… process. It is a Step 1, purify the results of step 1, check the purity of step 1, then Step 2, purify, check, etc. All the way along the line. If you don’t, some of the steps will get very interesting very quickly in some of the usual processes. Indeed, if corners are cut and base ingredients are bought that are less than pure, some work needs to be done prior to the early steps. For example, isopropyl alcohol, needed for Sarin, commonly has other alcohols in it, such as 1-propanol or butanol.

Purity of the outputs

Regardless of the agent produced, very few processes and pathways yield a relatively pure agent. There are byproducts, even when the purest ingredients are used. For example, the purest possible inputs to make Sarin do not get you a pure output. For every molecule of Sarin you make, you get a molecule of acid. It’s inevitable and cannot be helped. The process also yields an inevitable impurity called DIMP. Even the best high-quality US Sarin had significant amounts of DIMP that had to be removed. The Tokyo Sarin was riddled with the stuff, as well as another byproduct, DFP.

With residual acids, such as the HF or HCl that is inevitably in Sarin, these acids must be removed if you want the final product to have any kind of shelf life at all. Some sort of acid removal strategy is critical for a variety of reasons. Residual acids will degrade the nerve agents very quickly, and will wreak havoc on any kind of storage vessel or chemical munition. Historically, both physical and chemical means have been tried. Distillation is one approach, but it proved highly problematic with residual HF. Removing residual HF was so difficult in the US Sarin programme that they decided not to do it, and re-engineered the whole process, ending up with the “di di” process mentioned above. This process ended up with residual HCl instead. The HCl could be removed by a very lengthy and expensive distillation process. The USSR appears to have used a similar approach, if old East German military chemistry texts can be believed. Even so, many lots of the Sarin had to be repeatedly re-distilled in order to purify it. The difficulty of this step should not be underestimated. Saddam’s Iraq could not be bothered and made Sarin with very short shelf life.

The other approach is to add chemicals to absorb the residual acids. This requires different infrastructure than distillation and has proven more affordable for some producers. Chemicals from the amine family have a long history as nerve agent additives, particular as acid scavengers. (Full essay here.) The Assad regime in Syria makes Sarin with residual HF. This is dealt with by addition of the chemical hexamine. A single molecule of hexamine can attach to up to four molecules of HF. This particular method, no doubt, took a fair bit of experimentation to work out. These processes are exothermic, creating much heat, so this must be taken into account for most applications and planned for in the development of processes and procurement of equipment. An interesting point to be made here is that additives, residual impurities, and byproducts give a lot of clues to how a nerve agent was made. These can serve to match a producer to an incident. The exact mix can serve as a chemical fingerprint.

Equipment

All of the above-referenced issues mean that specialty equipment is required. Although much of the equipment needed is commercially available, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue at work. Until you work out for yourself which process is needed, you won’t know which equipment you will need. But you will need equipment to get started. Different equipment, configurations, and settings will need to be tried out. Various important bits of kit may be damaged or destroyed. Because of the dangerous nature of many of the chemicals used in the various processes, the operational lifespan of many components may be short. The Nazis used slave labour to repeatedly change valves and pipes in their Tabun factory.

The equipment for handling and controlling high pressure high temperature corrosive gases is highly specialized and expensive. The original Tabun factory in Nazi Germany used pipes made from silver. In addition, not every item needed is commercially available. Various pieces, parts, and vessels will have to be specially fabricated. None of this is particularly advanced or difficult, but serves to greatly increase the overall logistical footprint, time, labour, and expense of the project.

Furthermore, the above-mentioned purity requirements will require a fair bit of analytical instrumentation to test the characteristics of the various inputs and outputs. It’s all well and good to have a process to purify a substance, but it’s not likely you can tell just by looking. So analytical methods and instrumentation will be needed to tell how clean a particular part of a manufacturing process is. Likewise, how do you know if your end product is actually what it is meant to be? The nerve agents are largely undistinguished in their appearance.

Quantity, Size, and Space

Once you start adding up the weight and volume of the various pieces and parts you need to make a nerve agent, it quickly becomes apparent that a process for all but the smallest quantities needs more than a garden shed full of kit. The Aum Shinkrikyo facility was called Satyan 7 and was not small. It was a substantial facility and it never operated in a way to mass produce Sarin.  Even with the Aum cult’s significant effort, their ability to produce Sarin was limited to batches that never exceeded 20 kg in size. This was due to a variety of engineering and management issues.  20kg may sound like a lot of Sarin but it wasn’t, and resulted in only a small number of dead victims. (A full description of the Aum effort is here.) Military attacks with nerve agents are likely to take tens or hundreds of kilograms of agent. My own calculations show that perhaps a ton of chemical agent was used in the August 2013 attack in Ghouta, Syria.

Handling and storage of materials is an issue. With Sarin, the most economical pathway takes something like 8 or 9 kg of various inputs to end up with 1 kg of Sarin at the end of the process. The ratios are not exactly economical with other nerve agents. Also, there is this thing called conservation of mass. If you make 1 kg of Sarin starting from 9 kg of inputs, the other 8 kg does not disappear. You still have to deal with it in the form of waste. All of this waste material needs to be dealt with and some of it is extremely nasty. Some of it is in the form of highly dangerous gases and vapours that somehow must be vented somewhere. The large volumes of waste are one way to find a chemical weapons manufacturing site.

Cost

None of this is free. Very little of this is low-cost. In 1995, the Canadian government admitted that its costs for laboratory-grade ingredients for the small quantities of Sarin they produced for testing and evaluation were between 100 and 500 Canadian dollars per gram of Sarin produced. That is just for ingredients and does not account for facilities, equipment, or labour. The Aum cult spent many millions of dollars to make its relatively small amounts of Sarin. There’s very much a question of cost efficiency when it comes to nerve agents. Given the cost, time, and difficulty, is it really worth it? Surely other forms of killing are far more economical.

Safety

Finally, a bit of a note about safety. People died while developing the manufacturing processes for nerve agents. Some of them were well-equipped and well-trained scientists or engineers. All of the nerve agents are unsafe to handle, and particularly so by under-trained ill-equipped people. Many of the possible stages or processes are highly dangerous and are best done remotely. Some steps pose fire or explosion hazards. Small mistakes can be fatal or causing destruction of facilities. Protective clothing and respirators that will protect you from nerve agent exposure are not adequate for protection from many of the other industrial hazards. Exhaust will need to be specially scrubbed, lest the authorities take notice of birds falling out of the sky or similar phenomena. Expensive specialty glove boxes will be needed. Filters will need to be exchanged and somehow disposed of. The safety processes, even for someone with a cavalier attitude, will not be trivial.

Conclusion

The development and manufacture of nerve agents, particular in any kind of “useful” quantity, is a difficult and nasty undertaking. It is not cheap or easy or fast.

Dan Kaszeta

Dan is the managing director of Strongpoint Security Ltd, and lives and works in London, UK. He has 26 years experience in CBRN response, security, and antiterrorism.

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33 Comments

  1. Wim

    Although I agree that making classic deadly OP nerve agents is very difficult (except for bench-scale in well-equipped lab), this article unfortunately contains a few issues when it comes to basic chemistry.
    -HF is not a potent acid. Although very deadly, chemically HF is a weak acid.
    -P-C bond formation is not a rare step in industry (e.g. glyphosate). By the way, many OP nerve agents such as GV, VG and A-234 does not contain a P-C bond.
    -The di di process is mentioned but it fails to mention that it also needs isopropyl alcohol to react with the resulting methylphosphonyl chlorofluoride to form sarin.
    -The impurities in “pharmaceutical grade isopropanol” as in the linked spectrum will not give problems as they are <0.1%.

    That said, the basic argument of this article is correct. Sarin (and related substances) can't be cooked up in sizable amounts in "kitchen" conditions without serious harm to the operator.

    In case one wants to consider "alternative narratives", I would suggest focusing more on diverted state stocks, covert supply by state actors or manipulated forensics.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      Regarding your first point: the difficulty in handling hydrofluoric acid is not due its acidity (you’re right: it has a high pKa, for a mineral acid, of ~3.2). It is due to the fluoride anion, which requires special stainless steels or teflon vessels for handling. It is also far more poisonous than other acids. Anhydrous hydrogen fluoride is another animal altogether. It is a poisonous gas and a vicious lachrymator (one of the strongest I’ve felt, at least! Worse than chloroacetone or benzyl bromide).

      Second point: I actually agree. I’ve done Arbuzov reactions myself to prepare Horner-Wadsworth Emmons reagents. This step is trivial on a lab scale (so long as you have access to phosphorus trichloride–restricted due to its utility in LSD manufacture), but I can’t comment on conditions for process/industrial scale. It is certainly an exothermic reaction and it requires an inert atmosphere. While solvents are easy to acquire, use, and remove on a lab scale, that isn’t always true for process scale.

      Nitpicking points. I agree with your conclusions. “Kitchen” nerve agent just isn’t a thing. Bear in mind that Dan’s discussion refers to the ton-scale manufacture of nerve agents–such as was used in Ghouta on August 21, 2013–not laboratory preparations.

      Reply
  2. Sean Lamb

    It is worth pointing out that Dan isn’t a chemist and doesn’t understand that these are binary agents. IE you don’t make the pure end product, you make two relatively simple precursors and then simply mix them minutes or even seconds before deployment. So you don’t even need particularly robust containment facilities.

    For A-234 everything you need is available off the shelf

    You take Ethyl dichlorophosphate
    $288for 100 grams from Sigma https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/catalog/product/aldrich/e23704?lang=en

    It is not on any restricted list. You then need convert that using HF to Ethyl phosphorodifluoridate. That is literally the only chemistry you have to do.

    Finally, just before deployment you mix it with the other precursor (I won’t name it) also available from Sigma for $115 for 100 grams.

    And that is it. Probably wouldn’t do it in your kitchen, but definitely in your garage.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      “It is worth pointing out that Dan isn’t a chemist and doesn’t understand that these are binary agents.”

      100% false statement. He’s literally been publicly talking about binary nerve agents for 5 years.

      “It is not on any restricted list. You then need convert that using HF to Ethyl phosphorodifluoridate. That is literally the only chemistry you have to do.”

      You’re not a chemist either if you don’t appreciate the difficulty of this step. This is fluorination chemistry involving anhydrous HF (if we’re talking about industrial methods). HF is a poisonous gas and a very strong lachrymator: it will blind you (albeit temporarily, until your eyelids stop spasming) if you mishandle it. It will kill you if you inhale it. It destroys equipment that is not purpose-built. Ethyl difluorophosphate is a volatile nerve agent itself. It is also a reactive chemical that must be purified if it is to have any kind of shelf stability (as binary precursors should) or utility for preparing nerve agents.

      But if we’re talking about lab manufacture, I found three references on scifinder where ethyl dichlorophosphate is converted to ethyl difluorophosphate. None of these are the mix and stir that you seem to envision.

      1. Perfluoroalkyl Phosphonic and Phosphinic Acids as Proton Conductors for Anhydrous Proton-Exchange Membranes. Herath, Mahesha B. et al. ChemPhysChem, 11(13), 2871-2878; 2010

      Uses potassium fluoride in anhydrous acetonitrile under inert gas. Product is purified by drying over phosphorus pentoxide and vacuum distillation.

      2. Fluorination of organodichlorophosphorus compounds with sodium hexafluorosilicate. Part 1. Omar Farooq. ournal of the Chemical Society, Perkin Transactions 1: Organic and Bio-Organic Chemistry, Issue 5, Pages 839-840,
      1998

      Uses sodium hexafluorosilicate and ethyl difluorophosphate, either neat or in tetraglyme, at 200 C. Product is purified by vacuum distillation. 18% yield. (i.e.: the crude reaction mixture contains 82% trash that must be removed).

      3. Reaction of 2-hydroperfluoropropyl azide with some phosphorous acid derivatives. Lermontov, S. A. et al. Izvestiya Akademii Nauk SSSR, Seriya Khimicheskaya, (3), 682-4; 1990

      My Russian is pretty bad. But the scheme shows an exotic fluorination reagent reacting with diethyl chlorophosphite to yield ethyl difluorophosphate in 48% yield. Product is presumably purified by vacuum distillation, in accordance with the other references.

      Make no mistake: the safe manufacture of nerve agents requires experience in synthetic chemistry beyond what most bachelor’s or master’s level students attain.

      “Off the shelf” is a funny term if you’re referring to the Aldrich catalog. Only bonafide labs may order from there, and they certainly do not ship to random kitchens or garages. Don’t believe me? Call them up and ask for 100 g of ethyl dichlorophosphate shipped to your residential address. They’ll send the police instead.

      Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        “100% false statement. He’s literally been publicly talking about binary nerve agents for 5 years.”

        The fact he is been talking about binary nerve agents doesn’t mean it understands what a binary agent is. And he certainly has no chemistry qualification, hence is not a chemist.

        “Ethyl difluorophosphate is a volatile nerve agent itself. ”

        No it isn’t. It may be toxic, it isn’t a nerve agent and its boiling point is 86 C

        “None of these are the mix and stir that you seem to envision.”

        I didn’t envision anything, I simply said it was the one and only chemical step.

        “Only bonafide labs may order from there, and they certainly do not ship to random kitchens or garages”

        They will ship to any address – there may be some chemicals that have special handling requirements that they will want to check you are set up to handle. Sigma Aldritch catalogue is mirrored by at least a dozen other chemical companies some based in China.

        “Don’t believe me?”

        No.

        “Call them up and ask for 100 g of ethyl dichlorophosphate shipped to your residential address. They’ll send the police instead.”

        Prior to March 2018 I doubt it would have register any alarm bells, perhaps it might now. Even if they sent the police – unlikely – it isn’t actually illegal to order it since it isn’t on any register, it would probably be illegal to order if it can be proven your purpose was to manufacture a nerve agent. The fact is is relatively cheap and not as a special manufacture suggests they do ship some of it.

        Go to Alibaba there are at least 4 Chinese firms who will sell who aren’t likely to call local law enforcement – but it does seem to have its uses in manufacturing pesticides. Xiamen Aeco Chemical Industrial Co claim to be able to supply 50000 metric tonnes a year.

        Reply
        • DDTea

          And the boiling point for Sarin is 158 C, and that was volatile enough to injure dozens to hundreds in the Tokyo subway through simple evaporation. You can’t look only at boiling points when assessing vapor hazard.

          Ethyl difluorophosphate contains an electrophilic phosphorus (V) center, a short alkoxy group, and fluoride leaving groups. It may not be as potent as, say, DIFP, but it is almost certainly stable enough to arrive intact to the nervous system where it may react with acetylcholinesterase.

          “They will ship to any address”

          No they won’t. From their website FAQ.

          Q:Can I arrange for products to be delivered to my home address?
          A:We are not able to make deliveries to residential addresses, even if the product is ordered through a business account.
          https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/united-kingdom/technical-services/interactive-faq.html

          But yeah, chinese companies can be sketchy. May have issues clearing customs, but no guarantees on that either.

          You suggested this could be done in a kitchen or a garage. I suggest you haven’t done your research. Btw, with binary agents, you still have to produce pure precursors. And you still have to react them under controlled conditions to get decent yields of active nerve agent. And in order to establish those conditions (or even reproduce them from literature), you need a way to monitor your reactions or otherwise assess the quality of the product in trial runs. Or, you could just rely on luck. But based on the purity of the agent in the recent novichok murders, the folks behind it certainly weren’t amateurs relying on a lucky, blind synthesis.

          Reply
          • Sean Lamb

            “but it is almost certainly stable enough to arrive intact to the nervous system where it may react with acetylcholinesterase.”

            May, but very probably doesn’t.

            Look, this is not an unknown chemical – which is why firms advertise their ability to produce 50 000 metric tonnes of it a year. It has safety data sheets online, none of which suggest it is particularly unusually toxic. I mean yes it is toxic, but hardly the Whispering Death you are making out. There are 10 000’s of chemicals that have similar warnings and hazards

            You can look at it here
            https://www.chemicalbook.com/ProductChemicalPropertiesCB3182301_EN.htm

            As far as Sigma not delivering to a residential address, that is just to prevent fraud. They sell oligonucleotides for Chrissake, no security issues there. Just call your home False Flag Chemlab, set up an account and then they will cheerfully deliver – subject to special handling requirements mentioned above.

            Now while I think it could be made in garage, I certainly don’t think it was.

            I am just pointing out even the methods you quote are fairly bog standard. Take, for example, the Chemring factory that had an explosion in Salisbury. The odds are pretty good they can do vacuum distillation, that they have a fume hood – which is probably all the containment you need – and a gas cylinder system to deliver inert gas.

            That would be my point – there is essentially one reaction needed to manufacture this compound and there would be 1000s of labs in the world equipped to perform it

            We live in a world of chemistry, there is nothing special about fluoridating ethyl dichlorophosphate among the vast array of chemical manufactures that we take for granted.

          • DDTea

            I’m talking about the preparation and properties of ethyl *difluorophosphate,* which is a bit of a niche chemical that is certainly not produced on any large scale commercially. In fact, fluorination chemistry in the fine chemicals industry is a far cry from “bog standard” organic chemistry.

            As to its toxicity, I’ll directly quote a relevant passage from Bernard Saunders’ book, “Some Aspects of the Chemistry and Toxic Action of Compounds Containing Phosphorus and Fluorine” (Cambridge University Press, 1957), page 84:

            “Ethyl phosphorodifluoridate ( X X I ) was obtained by the
            action of sodium fluoride on the corresponding phosphoro
            dichloridate; unlike diethyl phosphorofluoridate, it was rapidly
            attacked by cold water. Alcohol converted ( X X I ) into the
            phosphorofluoridate :

            O:PF2-OEt +EtOH = O:PF(OEt)2 (XXI)

            When mice, rats, rabbits and guinea-pigs were exposed to a
            concentration of 0-88 mg./l. (i.e. 1/5000) of ethyl phosphorodifluoridate for 10 min. there was irritation of the eyes and nose
            with nasal discharge, lacrimation and salivation. Four minutes
            after exposure the mice and some of the rats developed
            dyspnoea, but all the animals recovered. When animals were
            exposed to a corresponding concentration of ethyl phosphorodi
            chloridate (1-46 mg./l.; 1/5000), similar symptoms were observed and no deaths resulted. ”

            In other words, ethyl difluorophosphate has toxicity approaching that of hydrogen cyanide. Handling such toxic compounds is never “bog standard.”

            Fume hoods (not exactly cheap), inert gas cylinders and manifolds, vacuum pumps, corrosion-resistant glassware, anhydrous solvents: what you’re describing is not a “garage,” it’s a lab. Where it’s setup is irrelevant, but your list of requirements to produce novichok is quickly approaching the description of necessary facilities mentioned by Dan in this very article.

            Now you just need to agree that you need supply/chemical deliveries (and a plausible story for receiving them from chemical distributors), waste handling, standard analytical/process monitoring equipment (chromatographs, spectrometers, etc.), and some means to scrub the fume hood exhaust. Unless you think the neighborhood wouldn’t notice all its birds falling from the sky around your “garage.”

          • Sean Lamb

            “Unless you think the neighborhood wouldn’t notice all its birds falling from the sky around your “garage.””

            I’m sorry, that is just nonsense. Yes, maybe if you had a vast wide 50 litre vat of ethyl difluorophosphate and a fan blowing across it, maybe your neighbours might notice a small effect.

            If you are just preparing a 50 ml batch using normal containers the effects would be negligible – according to the data you quoted.

            You are clearly well trained in chemistry – far in superior to me. But for reasons best known to yourself (and I am guessing an affiliation with military-intelligence or benefiting from a patronage network) you seem to want to use your knowledge to deceive and manipulate.

            Nevertheless, certain things have emerged.

            Only one bona-fide chemical reaction is needed to manufacture A-234 from cheap, readily available precursors supplied by at least a dozen chemical suppliers across the globe (in fact that, according to Mirzayanov, was its selling point. That the precursors had dual use and could be stockpiled in pesticide factories).

            That reaction is ethyl dichlorophosphate to ethyl difluorophosphate. Lets agree you can’t do it in garage – although the Tokyo sarin was essentially manufactured in a garage – but any lab with a basic organic chemistry expertise would manage it without difficulty. It is probably easier than sarin since the precursors aren’t on any register, while sarin you would have more steps for synthesis before you get to chemicals that vendors will sell without asking questions.

            I don’t think it is any secret that whoever came up with the Novichok idea had watched the November 28 2017 UK airing of Strike Back, that left effectively just over 3 months to develop and test before deployment. Which would be ample.

            As far as it goes, I suspect that the precursors were probably manufactured by whoever is delivering sarin to the White Helmets – either Qatar or Saudi Arabia, outside chance of Turkey. And I also expect they have access to excellent containment facilities and equipment.

  3. Robert

    In any case, AT LEAST 15 countries have nuclear weapons or have the technology to make them. Compared to the equipment, reagents, facilities, and personnel needed to build these nuclear weapons, synthesizing any of these gas or nerve agents is a “piece of cake”. So, any times I hear Russia is the only country that can make Novichok or the like of this, I am kind of dubious.

    Reply
  4. Adrian Kent

    Again this is all fascinating stuff, but there simply is no independent
    evidence of a large-scale release of an OP nerve agent in the Syrian conflict. We have plenty of witness testimonies and a few samples, but not with any (pre-2013) OPCW proper chain-of-custody associated with them. And we all know what the results were when finally the OPCW got to a site and took their own samples don’t we?

    Bench scale quantities are sufficient to account for every single positive case so far.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      “Again this is all fascinating stuff, but there simply is no independent
      evidence of a large-scale release of an OP nerve agent in the Syrian conflict. ”

      You’re telling lies. Yes there is.

      “We have plenty of witness testimonies and a few samples, but not with any (pre-2013) OPCW proper chain-of-custody associated with them. ”

      Yes we do: Eastern Ghouta, 2013.

      “Bench scale quantities are sufficient to account for every single positive case so far.”

      No they aren’t. Do you still believe in Sarin faeries? It relies on the myth that “bench scale quantities” of sarin and its metabolites are trivial to manufacture, among other absurdities.

      “And we all know what the results were when finally the OPCW got to a site and took their own samples don’t we?”

      They showed tremendous consistency across multiple attack sites–consistency with SSRC Sarin. They showed, unambiguously, that Assadist forces were responsible for the chemical attacks.

      Reply
      • Mad Dog

        Yeah, but “for reasons best known to yourself (and I am guessing an affiliation with military-intelligence or benefiting from a patronage network) you seem to want to use your knowledge to deceive and manipulate.” Right? I imagine you are in cahoots with the nefarious White Helmets in their agenda to manufacture nerve agents to garner sympathy for their cause…..and the Twin Towers were just an inside job!

        Reply
        • Francis Banks

          This post by Mad Dog sounds to me like those “alternative facts” that we hear so much about!

          Reply
      • Adrian Kent

        My apologies DDTea – you are correct and my post is indeed inaccurate.

        It was my intention to make a point about the situation AFTER the Syrian government had actually joined the OPCW (in October 2013), but a mixture of haste and slopiness on my behalf led to my incorrect statements. You are correct that a number of samples taken from the scene were indicative of a release of sarin. Whether or not those samples were indicative of a large-scale release and resulted in the large number of alleged casualties is, however, a different matter.

        Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        “Bench scale quantities are sufficient to account for every single positive case so far.”

        I guess it depends what you call bench scale quantities.

        According to HRW there were two rockets responsible for the 2013 attack – the attack that occurred on the day the OPCW inspection team checked into the Damascus Hotel after having been invited in by the Syrian government.

        One was believed to be a known Soviet munition – the other a homemade rocket (apparently the Syrian military had run out of orthodox munitions). The Soviet munition could carry a maximum of 2 litres of sarin.

        I will let DDTea work out the exact molecular weights and ratios. But on the assumption of an even split between isopropanol and methylphosphonyl difluoride (and don’t forget the hexamine!) – we are talking only 1 litre of the difficult to obtain ingredient. For the other rocket lets add in at most 3 litres.

        So the amount needed could be smuggled in 3 coke bottles.

        Is that bench scale? It is certainly small scale – the entire attacks probably don’t involve more than 10 litres of methylphosphonyl difluoride spread over 4 years.

        That is leaving the issue of why the Syrian government would invite the OPCW into Syria to inspect the site near Aleppo if they were going unleash a sarin attack the night they arrive.

        Reply
        • DDTea

          You don’t know what you’re talking about, but you seem passionate about deflecting blame from Assad for his atrocities.

          Bench scale is typically < 1 mole scale, and usually on the order of 10 – 100 millimoles. In other words, 1.4 – 14 grams of Sarin; or 1.5 – 15 milliliters. Manufacturing sarin on a 1 liter scale requires all the prohibitive R&D effort and chemical engineering described in this article. I can't even imagine working with 1 L of something so volatile and so lethal–this is unforgiving chemistry that would kill the uninitiated without a second thought.

          "According to HRW there were two rockets responsible for the 2013 attack "
          –Small, but important correction: there were two *TYPES* of rockets used in the August 21, 2013 attack on East Ghouta.

          "The other a homemade rocket (apparently the Syrian military had run out of orthodox munitions)"
          — Nowhere was it ever suggested that this was a "homemade" rocket. Unorthodox, maybe. But there is video evidence, from the Syrian forces themselves, of them using exactly these types of rockets / IRAM's. There is even footage of such a launcher in Eastern Ghouta near the time of the attack. And they continue to include IRAMs in their arsenals: just look at their new "Golan 300." Or the weird "barrel bombs" they continue to drop out of helicopters.

          " For the other rocket lets add in at most 3 litres."
          You could at least check the OPCW report for a description of the sarin rockets recovered in Moadamiya and Zamalka/Eyn Tarma:

          "The approx. capacity of liquid in the warhead is according to the measurements between 56 +/- 6 liters." (page 21)
          http://www.un.org/zh/focus/northafrica/cwinvestigation.pdf

          Bear in mind that these are essentially unitary weapons. The DF / IPA / Hexamine is combined just prior to filling the munitions and launching.

          Reasonable estimates are that ~500 kg's of Sarin were used on the morning of August 21, 2013. That's how much would be needed to cause the sort of mass casualties seen over such a wide area.

          "That is leaving the issue of why the Syrian government would invite the OPCW into Syria to inspect the site near Aleppo if they were going unleash a sarin attack the night they arrive."
          –Poor communication between commanders & politicians and favorable weather conditions. The Syrian government also denied OPCW inspectors access to Eastern Ghouta for several days; and launched massive artillery strikes against Eastern Ghouta prior to granting them access in an attempt to destroy evidence; and further, attacked them with snipers.

          Reply
  5. Sean Lamb

    Thanks for linking to the report – naturally nowhere in it does it make an estimate that 500 litres of sarin was used in 2013. But I will return to that later. This, however, was so good:

    “Having arrived in the Syrian Arab Republic on 18 August 2013, we were in
    Damascus on the 21 August preparing to conduct on-site inspections in connection with our investigation into the allegations concerning the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Asal and in Sheik Maqsood and Saraqueb.”

    Co-incidentally Assad must like anniversaries because 21 August was a year to the day when Obama made his Red Line statement – no wonder he ranks his decision not to bomb Syria after August 2013 one of the most proud moments of in his presidency.

    “I’m very proud of this moment,” – not hard to see why….

    Reply
        • DDTea

          “And references therein” to HRW’s investigation:

          “[note 1] In their report Attacks on Ghouta, Human Rights Watch states: “Witness statements and information including GPS locations of rockets found in the area provided by local activists, as well as satellite imagery locations that match the location in the videos, have allowed Human Rights Watch to confirm at least four strike sites in Zamalka where at least eight 330mm rockets struck on August 21. This is unlikely to be a complete account of the number of rockets used in the attack.”[1](p7) A map labeled “Map of the 330mm chemical rocket impact locations in Zamalka neighborhood” shows 12 sites.[1](pVI) The dimensions of the impact area was found by comparing the Human Rights Watch map to a scaled satellite image. ”
          https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria_cw0913_web_1.pdf

          Nothing you have said in this discussion has been supported by anything at all, so you really have no room to complain while I spoon feed you.

          Reply
          • Sean Lamb

            The fact they located 8 330 mm rockets using satellite imagery, doesn’t mean there were 8 330 mm rockets filled with sarin.

            Actually here are some rebel improvised rockets delivering gas.
            http://i.imgur.com/gso7H1z.jpg

            In this case it is inflammatory gas, not poison gas – but they clearly have the rudimentary technology necessary.

            It is just a variant of the volcano rocket of which there are scores of photos clearly not involving sarin delivery.

            https://cdn.liveleak.com/80281E/ll_a_u/thumbs/2015/Jan/14/f409db3a793c_sf_7.jpg

            Here’s another one of rebels constructing rockets delivery (inflammable) gas

            https://d.ibtimes.co.uk/en/full/1428034/syria-homemade-weapons.jpg

            As I have said before, HRW are a notorious lazy organization who never fact check their reports

          • Eliot Higgins

            There’s videos and photographs of at least 8 different Volcano rockets filmed following the August 21st 2013 attacks, many of which have been geolocated. While there’s explosive versions of the same type of rockets, there’s external differences between the two types of rockets that clearly indicate the Volcano rockets filmed and photographed on August 21st 2013 are the explosive variant. The image you linked showing the blue munitions are not filled with gas, but are Hell Cannon rounds which are gas cylinders filled with explosives, something that’s very well documented. I suggest you spend some time looking up Volcano rockets and Hell Cannons, as your comment is filled with inaccuracies.

          • oui oui

            ” Kremlin trolls sent pro and anti-vaccine tweets in order to sow discord”
            Kremlin trolls post pro and anti comments in order to reduce each article’s clarity

  6. Concerned Citizen

    Eliot Higgins – August 26, 2018
    There’s videos and photographs of at least 8 different Volcano rockets filmed following the August 21st 2013 attacks, many of which have been geolocated.

    Doesnt tell us who fired the rockets, where and when they originally landed or if they were ever full of Sarin with a sprinkle of hexamine. Or indeed if the rockets were ever fired at all. Maybe they just took some rockets from an Al Queda workshop and dented them up a bit.

    Reply
    • Sean Lamb

      You would think the term “Volcano Rocket” would be a bit of a give away as to what their purpose was?

      Reading through the OPCW report, they first collected munition fragments from Moadamiyah – although they admit they couldn’t find an intact warhead – on 26 August 2013. These tested so weakly for sarin break-down products it is almost certainly the result of secondary contamination.

      They then sat in their hotel for a couple of days before proceeding Zamalka where they were presented with some Volcano rockets fragments – although again they were unable to locate even a partially complete warhead – these tested more strongly for sarin and its break-down products. However, because the methods are a best only semi-quantitative (barely), it is still quite plausibly a result of secondary contamination or deliberate tainting.

      And as the authors themselves pointed out: “During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected
      munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly
      manipulated.”

      Bottom line – Volcano rockets MIGHT be modified to carry sarin, but the evidence supporting that is rather poor at the moment and contingent on how reliable you think the Jihadists are. And the method of delivery of sarin to Moadamiyah has to be considered completely unknown.

      Reply
      • Sean Lamb

        “partially complete warhead” – partially complete is tautology. What I meant was that although parts of a missile were found and a few fragments that were probably from the warhead – nothing approaching a complete warhead was located.

        Reply
      • Black Star

        So you protest that evidence is weak without producing a single piece of evidence for your own claim. Pretty dishonest, do you think?

        Reply
  7. Stoica Paul

    If Shoko Asahara could do make sarin gas, i think it is not as hard for a terrorist organisation to do it.

    Reply
  8. Clive

    If it is so difficult, please explain how the group Aum Shinrikyo created not only Sarin but also VX? (Tokyo subway attack 1995)

    Reply

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