Analytical Chemists to the Rescue: The Syria Chemical Weapon Attack

I do not know much on the Syrian conflict and I’m not really interested in who did what, but I would like to champion the work of analytical chemists. My peeps.

From New Scientist:


“In the past, weapons inspectors have used portable equipment to run gas chromatography and mass spectrometry on the samples, which can separate the samples into their physical components and analyse them.

If this team doesn’t have that equipment in the field, they would have to freeze the biological samples and ship them to a lab certified by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

There’s always the chance that samples will be smuggled out of Syria for analysis before the inspectors gain access. President Obama has instructed the US intelligence community to gather information about the recent attack. This may involve using covert agents to gather samples and smuggle them out of the country, as they have done in past conflicts.

Of course – the most conclusive evidence would be an analysis of the remains of the munition used to deliver the weapon. This could prove that it was a malicious attack, and what chemical was deployed.”

Wow, undercover analytical chemists sneaking in gas chromatography-mass spectrometers (GC-MS). Well they are getting more and more portable as time goes on, but I’m guessing they take samples from the site to a nearby facility.

So for for the layman, chromatography = separation. So you heat things up to make a gas right? Different molecules will have different boiling points. If you heat a sample slowly and what gets turned into gas over that time period travels through a long thin tube you get a separation of whats in your sample. Put a detector on the end to tell you how much of that compound you have and you’re onto a winner.

So a gas chromatograph will separate you sample and tell you how much of each part you have!

Strap all this onto the front of a mass spectrometer which helps identify structures of molecules and you have know what the molecule is!

GC-MS is a wonderful tool that kicks ass. It would be invaluable for identifying what chemical weapon was used even if it has started to degrade.

Anyway sarin is an extremely potent nerve agent and 500 times more toxic than cyanide. It was the nerve agent that the crazy Japanese cult released into a subway in the nineties.

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