This all began when the congressional hearings regarding Syria came up on the TV at my work. Upon hearing a government official cite the importation of tens of thousands of pounds of sarin precursor chemicals to Syria, I couldn’t help but think, “I bet the chemicals he’s referring to are overwhelmingly commonplace.” I recalled that sarin has a fluorine moiety and this meant they may have been referencing importation of hydrofluoric acid—a common and useful acid, but it is usually avoided, if possible, due to concerns with toxicity. As soon as I got a chance, I conducted some quick Internet research on sarin. To my surprise, the final step in the production of sarin involves the reaction of a chemical that more accurately fits the definition of precursor with a chemical even more commonplace than hydrofluoric acid, isopropyl alcohol. I decided to research all the various steps involved in sarin production that lead up to the step involving isopropyl alcohol. I quickly realized that Syria is capable of self-sustaining sarin production and that importation of isopropyl alcohol is hardly indicative of such an operation.
The following describes a hypothetical, de novo synthesis of the nerve agent sarin using materials that would be available in Syria without importation. The original points of this discussion were to demonstrate that Syria is capable of industrial-scale sarin production without external assistance, and that the citing of isopropyl alcohol importation to Syria by politicians and media outlets is flimsy evidence for sarin production. I have a soft-spot for chemistry, so this got out of hand soon after I began to write it.
The Chemistry of Syria
If we’re to start from a raw material that is more or less widely available, then we can start with the mineral calcium phosphate or some other phosphate mineral. Calcium phosphate isn’t actually one mineral; it’s a group of minerals characterized by a phosphate anion (negative charge) ionically bonded to one or more calcium cations (positive charge). The most ubiquitous application of calcium phosphate, and of phosphate minerals in general, is in the production of fertilizers. The following nations, in descending order of metric tons produced, are the world’s major producers of phosphate-containing rock: China, United States, Morrocco and Western Sahara, Russia, Tunisia, Jordan, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Australia, Syria–there are countries that produce less phosphate rock, but we can stop here. Besides fertilizers, phosphate minerals have an application in the production of elemental phosphorous.
So, a significant portion of Syria’s economy involves the mining of calcium phosphate-containing rock. Not only can Syria produce their own phosphate fertilizers, they can produce elemental phosphorous by heating phosphate rock to between 1200ºC and 1500ºC, in the presence of silicon dioxide (that’s sand) and coke (a form of carbon that can be obtained as a byproduct of refining petroleum). A clever chemist involved in sarin production might heat the phosphate-containing mineral fluoroapatite to produce elemental phosphorous. Now that the phosphorous has been made, what is it used for?
White phosphorous, a form of elemental phosphorus, is used to make oil additives, insecticides and herbicides, like Monsanto’s glyphosate. And, yes, it can also be used to produce the sarin precursor phosphorous trichloride. To arrive at phosphorous trichloride: white phosphorous is dissolved in carbon disulfide and refluxed (similar to simmering a stew with the lid on so none of the liquid evaporates); chlorine gas is introduced into the system; the resulting phosphorous trichloride is removed from the system as it is formed, ensuring that the reaction moves in the direction of the product. Wait a second! Where the hell is Syria getting this chlorine gas and carbon disulfide? First, we’ll assume that chlorine, being a widely used and easily produced chemical (think electrolysis of molten salt—that stuff that makes your food tasty), is already lying around Syria in one form or another. Carbon disulfide can be formed by the reaction of methane and sulfur in the presence of silica gel, with hydrogen sulfide also being a product of the reaction. Methane is the principle component natural gas, and sulfur is obtainable from crude oil as well as natural gas. Since Syria is already a producer of natural gas and petroleum, methane and sulfur don’t need to be imported. And remember that sandy silicon dioxide stuff? That’s what silica gel is composed of.
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