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Analysis Of The Park Patriot “Sarin Lab” In The Moscow Region

May 23, 2019

By Dan Kaszeta

Translations: Русский

West of Moscow is a theme park called Patriot Park.  One interesting exhibit at this park is an alleged Sarin production laboratory, said to have been captured in Syria.  But is this really a production rig for the nerve agent Sarin?

Photographs of the “Sarin Lab” courtesy of the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT)

Sarin Production

Sarin is a complicated substance to make. It is, in fact, more complicated to make than many other nerve agents, and there are numerous production pathways to get from basic materials to Sarin.

All of these production methods lead to the production of a substance called methylphosphonyl dichloride, which I will abbreviate top DC. To produce Sarin, DC needs to be converted to another chemical called methylphosphonyl difluoride, or DF for short. Regardless of the many pathways that lead to DF, they all lead to one of two final steps to get to the production of Sarin molecules. For lack of a better terminology, I will refer to them as Method 1 and Method 2.

Method 1 combines DF with isopropyl alcohol (IPA).  One molecule of DF combined with one molecule of isopropyl alcohol reacts to produce one molecule of Sarin, one molecule of hydrogen fluoride (HF), and heat.  Both the residual HF (which is a dangerous acid) and the residual heat are serious issues.

Method 2 was developed to cope with the problem of residual HF, which in large scale production proved to cause many difficulties, including deaths of production staff and loss of expensive hardware.

This method is more complicated. It combines a specialized mix of DF and DC with the IPA. This reaction combines 2 molecules IPA with 1 molecule of DC and 1 molecule of DF.

This reaction, when done carefully under the right conditions of temperature and pressure, yields 2 molecules of Sarin and 2 molecules of hydrogen chloride (HCl), as well as much heat. This residual HCl is easier to remove by various chemical engineering methods than residual HF, and is less dangerous to work with, but only in relative terms.

In the U.S. production method, this DC/DF cocktail was made by partially conducting the DC to DF conversion process and stopping the reaction when the appropriate ration of DC and DF was reached. This took literally years of trial and error to get exactly right at the U.S. Sarin production facility in Colorado.

The exact ratio of DC to DF is close to, but not exactly, equimolar. The timings, temperatures, and processes to convert DC to a DC/DF blend for this production method are still highly classified. It needs to happen under conditions of high temperature, because DC is a solid at room temperatures.

Unpacking The “Production Lab”

In overall terms, the displayed equipment rig is patently unsuitable for the production of Sarin. To anyone familiar with the well-documented historical processes for manufacture of Sarin in Germany, the U.S., and Japan, this equipment instantly looks inadequate to the task.

Indeed, it is hard to know where to start with this set-up.

There are a lot of things that are not explained in the exhibit display. Elements which are not present cannot, by definition, be evaluated — but their absence can be remarked upon. To be honest, it is quite possible that the persons who constructed this display did not know much about the process and were thus making guesses. There is no visible block diagram or process diagram purporting to show what is going on in this jumble of equipment.

If this is meant to be a Sarin production rig, it is showing only the final steps of the process, the last stages of Method 1 above.

There is no sufficient engineering or process controls for Method 2 to be contemplated. We are forced to assume that components are as marked, and that indicated chemical substances are as they are marked on their label.  However, this may not actually be the case in the reality in the field.  It is commonplace usage in clandestine drug laboratories to store substances in containers not consistent with their labelling.

What Is The Process On Display?

Which parts of the process are being done in which container is unclear. The blue drums are labelled “Reactor for mixing reagents” in English, but in Arabic the script translates to “reagents for reactor mixing” (note: I do not read Arabic and Bellingcat has provided this translation). These two descriptions are inconsistent. We are left with uncertainty as to whether one of the plastic drums is the reactor vessel or the metal cement mixer is the reactor.

It also is questionable why a covert lab would label its components. There are two main possibilities:

 

  1. DF is stored in one barrel and isopropyl alcohol is stored in the other. The two components are combined, along with triethylamine, in the cement mixer.
  2. The DF+IPA reaction is done in one of the plastic drums. The resulting product is then moved to the cement mixer where triethylamine is added.

Either way, there are many problems with these processes and this hardware. These are, in no particular order, described as follows:

The Absence of DF

You cannot make Sarin without DF, yet there is no evidence of any DF present.

The exhibitors have made the presence of isopropyl alcohol and the very optional triethylamine clearly visible, but not DF.

There is no container that looks adequate for storage of DF, which is highly reactive to many substances and even reacts with the ambient humidity in air. DF is not commercially available and cannot be obtained by purchase, as the only sources are closely regulated OPCW-inspected facilities that handle only very small quantities.

If you want DF, you have to make it. The various processes for making DF are complex and dangerous. But there is no indication of the necessary hardware or any process for making or purifying DF in these photographs. Anyone believing that this laboratory produces Sarin is required to assume that DF is already present. This, in turn, demands an explanation of where the DF came from.

The Blue Drums

The blue plastic drums are inherently incapable of handling the IPA-DF reaction.

Often, but not exclusively, produced from polyethylene, such large blue drums are widely used for storing chemicals. These particular drums are rated for storage of food. Their markings show that they are Russian in origin. They were procured by Russian company ZTI, near Moscow.

This raises an important issue. As such drums are ubiquitous around the world, why would a clandestine Syrian rebel group source them from a company in a town just west of Moscow?  The drums came from a company only 60 km away from the exhibition site.

Accordingly to the manufacturer’s website, the drums appear to be made from either low density polyethylene (LDPE) or high density polyethylene (HDPE). This particular material has reasonable corrosion resistance.

Could a low density polyethylene drum be corrosion resistant enough for one or two production runs of Sarin? It is possible, although this material is not ideal for the purpose. The issue becomes one of heat and pressure.  Polyethylene drums lose their structural integrity at higher temperature. They can withstand 80 degrees C, but can only stand 90 degrees C for a short period of time. The chemical compatibility of LDPE and HDPE is explained here.

Both the DF-IPA and DF-water reactions produce heat. Because the drums are pressurized, apparently with nitrogen gas or some other gas from the gas cylinders, the barrels will be under pressure.

It seems odd to pressurize a drum not designed for such use. The addition of heat and HF from the Sarin will greatly add to the pressure inside these barrels.

Such a drum will either burst or vent dangerous gases in a Sarin production run. It seems unwise and unsafe to use an LDPE or HDPE drum for the Sarin reaction. In addition, there is no visible mixing mechanism in the plastic drums.  It is unclear how mixing could occur.

The drums, on the other hand, could be suitable for storage of IPA and DF. DF is a difficult substance to store safely, as the U.S. military discovered during its own nerve agent manufacturing programme. DF’s preferred storage material is high density polyethylene (HDPE), a fact which is publicly published. The suitability of LDPE for storing DF is unclear in the available literature.

The Cement Mixer

Given the lack of mixing, the inconsistent labelling, and the fact that both of the plastic drums can’t both be used for the main DF-IPA reaction, the use of a modified cement mixer is extremely problematic for the DF-IPA reaction.

Anyone who has seen how a cement mixer such as this works knows that the mixer drum rotates. A sample video is here.

How are those improvised hose attachments going to work when the drum rotates? The input hoses are going to wrap around the mixer. They will break and spew chemicals everywhere.

Also, with the cover bolted shut, it is not clear how the end product is going to be removed. The metal mixer will get very hot very quickly.

There appears to be a vent on the left side. This will spew hot HF and Sarin in every direction while spinning. In addition, the HF and DF will attack the metal.  Specialty metals are needed to contain a binary Sarin reaction for very long.

It is, on the other hand, possible that the intended use is not for the drum to rotate. This seems odd, as there is no other mixing mechanism visible or implied. It seems very likely that this mixer will fail, and fail catastrophically.

Connections And Fittings

Although the polyethylene drum will provide some corrosion resistance to the HF, the various fittings going into and out of the drum will not survive the HF or the DF. HF and DF are not kind to metal.

It should also be noted that the fittings on the gas cylinder have Cyrillic characters on them, indicating likely Russian origin. Why would a Syrian rebel chemical warfare effort source gas cylinder fittings from Russia, which would only highlight suspicion?

PPE

The protective equipment that the mannequins are wearing is not sufficient to safely handle the Sarin manufacturing process.

While the “Tyvek” suits and military filter-based protective mask are going to provide adequate protection against Sarin vapours and droplets, what they will not protect against is exposure to the Sarin components. Leaking HF vapour will most assuredly attack the skin of the person wearing that PPE, as the Tyvek is not an airtight suit.

Would the masks provide some protection to the respiratory tract? Likely. But will it protect someone for a protracted period of time while working in an enclosed space?  Unlikely.

The gloves may not be adequate for triethylamine.  It is not clear what type of glove is being showcased.

Temperature Controls

There is no hardware in evidence for controlling the temperature of any of the process. The heat produced in the reaction is going to do bad things if it isn’t controlled. The DF/IPA reaction is likely to produce enough heat to boil the contents of either the plastic barrel or the cement mixer. Either would lead to catastrophic failure. The sign on the exhibit claims that the process operates at 25 deg C. This is absurd.

Packaging And Labelling Of Chemicals

Neither of the containers appears to be the original container from the manufacturer. Safety information, in English, seems to be printed out and taped to the containers. We are left to assume that they are correctly labelled. But literally anything could have been in these containers.

The Alcohol

The pictured isopropyl alcohol does not appear to be the high purity required for safety and efficiency of the DF-IPA reaction.

For this reaction to work, it needs to be as close to 100% pure and completely free of moisture, particularly since DF reacts very badly with water. There is nothing shown in this production rig for purifying lower grades of IPA.

There’s no way that the pictured container contains 100% pure IPA, because the fluid level is clearly visible in the container. 100% pure IPA will rapidly absorb moisture out of ambient air. If you use this particular alcohol in the picture in a Sarin reaction, it is likely that there will be problems in the process. You will certainly produce Sarin, but quality and safety degrade quickly and you will need a more robust reaction vessel than the one illustrated.

DF reacts almost instantaneously to form HF and another acid.  Any molecule of DF that reacts with water instead of IPA reduces the overall purity of the end product as that molecule is used up to make residue products instead of Sarin. Also, this water-DF reaction produces excess heat, which will add to the overall heat in the reaction vessel. In summary, use of the pictured alcohol makes the pictured reactor vessels inadequate.

Triethylamine

Various amine compounds have had a reasonable track record as acid reducing additives to Sarin. This topic has already been well explored on Bellingcat.

A thorough search of the technical literature will show that triethylamine is useful as a Sarin additive.  It should be noted that this knowledge comes from the UK Sarin programme in the 1950s and is based on Sarin produced by Method 2.

It should be noted, however, that triethylamine’s safety is questionable in an improvised laboratory situation.

The physical characteristics of triethylamine make it a fire hazard. It is highly volatile and gives off vapours. It has a low flash point and a lower explosive limit that make it quite dangerous near any kind of heat source or spark. Given the possibility of a spark, increased temperatures due to exothermic reactions, and the likelihood of triethylamine vapours venting from the alleged mixing vessel, a fire or explosion is a distinct possibility. Also, triethylamine is corrosive to many types of plastics, rubbers, and  metals.

Conclusion

Based on all available evidence, it is highly unlikely that this exhibit is actually a production laboratory for Sarin. While it may be fascinating for casual visitors to Patriot Park, it does not pass the authenticity test.

I acknowledge the help of several chemists, including DDTea in the preparation of this post. Thank you.

Dan Kaszeta

Dan is the managing director of Strongpoint Security Ltd, and lives and works in London, UK. He has 27 years experience in CBRN response, security, and antiterrorism.

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35 Comments

  1. Servus

    Great report!

    Also, all elements seem to be new while one would expect visible signs of use or corrosion.

    Hope Russians read the report and correct the display, lets wait for photos in few weeks time .-)))

    Reply
  2. Richard

    Does anyone know how well such stupid propaganda is received in Russia? No effort seems to have been spent simulating a beleavable sarin production facility. There must be some critical voices exposing such frauds.

    Reply
  3. Tourist

    There are two theories:
    1. The whole setup is a fake, and the story behind it as well.
    2. The russians provided this setup to the rebels to provoke some incidents.

    Reply
    • oui oui

      and the mixing is done with the Cement Mixer’s wheel , turn left , turn right , turn left , turn right , while singing ” I am an idiot jihadi producing his sarin to stage an aerial bombing with a bomb leaving no traces to say that it’s Assad”

      Reply
  4. Steven

    It would be fascinating to know exactly what the accompanying exhibition text says. Do you have a photo or translation of this too? Are the exhibitors genuinely claiming it originated in Syria? (This would be a new level of stupidity)

    Reply
    • vk

      The accompanying text says “A makeshift apparatus for production of chemical weapons. The apparatus is designed for production of organophosphorus chemical compounds of lethal effect, achieved by interaction of binary munitions”. Nothing more. Looks like just a sloppy exhibit to me, definitely not worth any “investigative” effort or publishing a whole article here.

      Reply
      • Dan Kaszeta

        Well, I felt that as the signage specifically stated Sarin, it was worth my time to debunk it.

        Reply
  5. Ghost Ship

    How much did MI-6 pay you via II to put together this article or did they just hand you the text and associated photographs?

    Reply
    • Ghost Ship

      Also, are you and/or MI-6 and/or CIA and/or DGSE still desperate to prove that the jihadists can’t manufacture Sarin?

      Reply
      • DDTea

        Extraordinary claims, like jihadists are manufacturing sarin in Syria, require extraordinary evidence.

        Not the other way around.

        This fake sarin plant at Patriot Park ain’t it.

        Reply
        • Ghost Ship

          Shame you didn’t apply the same principle to the claims that the Syrian government has used Sarin in Syria. The only claim of sarin use that has been independently investigated, that in Douma, turned out to not involve sarin. The evidence for all the other attacks came from jihadists without any independent evidence gathering and since the jihadists are desperate for NATO to intervene on their behalf, their evidence is not exactly compelling.

          Reply
          • DDTea

            This comment is patently false, and one I believe I’ve corrected you on before. Eastern Ghouta was independently investigated by a UN team supported by the OPCW. Sarin was confirmed to have been used as a weapon based on both environmental + biomedical samples collected with intact chain of custody from point of origin.

            How can we take you seriously if you don’t even have basic, factual details corrrect?

          • Black Star

            Also, I believe that from chemical traces *in* the sarin samples that showed what chemicals were used to manufacture it, it was proven that the chemical was manufactured by Syrian government in a Syrian government laboratory.

            Not bought from abroad, not made in a field laboratory by the rebels, but manufactured in a Syrian government laboratory.

    • Servus

      “How much did MI-6 pay ” actual CIA and 12.50$, the display is such an obvious fake that it was not worth more for them .-)))))

      Reply
  6. Ghost Ship

    The manufacture of Sarin is really not complicated if you already have the appropriate precursors and if you’re not concerned with storing the Sarin and with corrosive by-products . You just just mix them together and hey presto, you have Sarin. It’s even easier if you have a jihadist fuckwit who wants to martyr himself.

    BTW, that display looks just like a lot of “interpretive” displays you see quite often in museum. Perhaps you should have published a photograph of the descriptive panel to show what the museum actually said it was.

    Reply
    • DDTea

      That statement could not possibly be farther from the truth.

      Even with the ideal precursors, every step of the manufacturing process requires method development experiments, scale-up expts, and appropriate reactor design.

      Storing sarin with corrosive impurities is a nonstarter. Said impurities will catalytically decompose the sarin. It will have no shelf life to speak of.

      Reply
      • Ghost Ship

        Once you have methylphosphonyl difluoride, isopropyl alcohol, and isopropyl amine, all you need to do is mix them and you get sarin. It’s how the American M687 155 mm binary sarin chemical weapon artillery shell works.

        The shell contained two canisters separated by a rupture disk. The compartments were filled with two liquid precursor chemicals for sarin methylphosphonyl difluoride (denominated DF) and a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and isopropyl amine (denominated OPA) is in a second canister. The isopropyl amine binds the hydrogen fluoride generated during the chemical reaction. When the shell was fired the force of the acceleration would cause the disk between them to breach and the spinning of the projectile facilitated mixing. The two precursor chemicals would react in flight to produce sarin and when the shell reached its target the sarin would be released.

        ,

        As for the rest of your disinformation:

        Even with the ideal precursors, every step of the manufacturing process requires method development experiments, scale-up expts, and appropriate reactor design.

        No it does not, you just have to mix the chemicals I mention above. Where and how you do it doesn’t matter. There is no need to conduct scale up experiments as you just have to put either the DF or the mixture of isopropyl alcohol and isopropyl amine in bigger containers. As for reactor design, you could use a bath tub!

        Storing sarin with corrosive impurities is a nonstarter. Said impurities will catalytically decompose the sarin. It will have no shelf life to speak of.

        That’s the whole point about binary chemical weapons like sarin, you don’t need to store the sarin, you create and then use it straight away. Providing the shelf life of sarin exceeds the flight time of the artillery shell, it doesn’t matter how impure the sarin is. Even, the isopropyl amine is optional in a rudimentary weapon.

        Reply
        • Richard

          So you want to use a Wikipedia article which was cited in 2008 as essentially unreferenced and with no improvements in the intervening 11 years? You might cite the next comic book you run into. Just the mention of a cement mixer should be enough to show anyone what a (sick) joke this Disneyland of Death really is. Btw, I am sure many people in Russia see through this stupid propaganda.

          Reply
          • Ghost Ship

            So what? What are has changed about the M687 in the last 11 years? If you knew what you were talking about, you’d know that the production of the M687 ceased in 1990 and they are supposed to have all been dismantled.

        • DDTea

          You don’t know what you’re talking about.

          Run the thermodynamic calculations. DF + IPA to produce sarin and HF isn’t gonna happen in a closed system without a base present.
          DeltaH of + 68 kcal/mol. Suggesting the base can be omitted is ludicrous.

          Methylphosphonic difluoride is not a common chemical. It has no commercial uses. It has no uses at all besides making nerve agents. As mentioned in this very article, it must be synthesized. If we’re talking binary, then the DF must be pretty clean and suitable for storage. This requires a corrosion resistant distillation column.

          I wouldn’t want to be the one mixing up DF, IPA, and a suitable amine in a bathtub.

          The process you’re envisioning is not an expedient way to produce sarin. Cutting these corners will lead to little to no viable nerve agent–just a corrosive mess. Skipping purification steps and method development only makes the task more difficult.

          And I’ll remind you: we’re discussing hundreds of kgs of sarin, as used in Ghouta, Latamineh, and Khan Sheikhoun. This cement mixer nonsense isn’t going to produce that.

          Reply
          • concerned citizen

            Nonsense, given the necessary precursors making ‘bathtub sarin’ would be child’s play. No amount of waffling is going to change that.

    • Servus

      Thankfully, Wikipedia was not available when Japanese sect fabricated Sarin and carried out an attack in Tokyo metro…

      According to some reports it took them several years to build a small chemical plant at 1,000,000 $ expense.

      The shown equipment looks more as a vodka distillery, just wonder what they do there after hours…

      Reply
  7. piglet

    To compare Russian public displays with those of advanced economies will inevitably show a cultural divide. The lack of transparency, accountability and objectivity in Russian governing practices and, unfortunately, in Russian education itself is reflected in such ‘educational’ displays as the one here. Simulacrum is the norm in Russia rather than the exception.

    Reply
  8. R. Lukkien

    To which Syrian organisation is this supposed Sarin-lab attributed at the exhibition?

    Reply
    • Dan Kaszeta

      It is not actually very clear what group this “lab” is alleged to have been captured from.

      Reply
  9. francesca

    Are you really suggesting that the Russians would put on display a fully functional sarin lab? How literal of you, and how irresponsible that would be.
    I mean, why make it so easy for bad actors?
    Also, I would really like you to do a critique of the report of the OPCW’s only investigating team on the ground at Douma, shortly after the supposed gas attack there.The engineering report compiled with the collaboration of 2 European universities and OPCW’s own experts
    I’ve read the report and it blows yours out of the water. Which is not surprising as you were trying to fit a conclusion to a scenario you only had photos of

    Reply
    • Servus

      Oh Francesca, nice to see that your nickname survived recent budgetary purges at Olgino.
      “Are you really suggesting that the Russians would put on display a fully functional sarin lab?”

      Why should anybody believe you, do you have some authoritative information coming from the propaganda arm of the FSB ? Please confirm your FSB affiliation status, we have to know why you seem entitled to talk for “Russians”!

      Your Russian troll logic is unbeatable, the display is supposed to be a proof that rebels were producing Sarin, so says the official version, and one can easily find photos of a Russian officer displaying the lab for foreign diplomats and journalists. But once it’s obvious it’s a primitive fake, then Russian troll says it’s an intentional fake for a good reason, to protect the world against evil amateur chemists.
      You should not get paid for such rubbish, even in rubles !

      Reply
  10. inspectorman

    An excellent article by Dan, as usual. Those who have done this for real at scale will be on the side of Servus and DDTea.

    Reply

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