Molecule of the Day

Sarin (Nasty.)

Sarin is an organophosphate that irreversibly inhibits cholinesterase. it’s a neurotoxin, and a potent one. It’d be absolutely terrifying as a weapon, if it weren’t so unstable. Even if a rogue state had gobs of Sarin last year, it’s all pretty much a dud by now. The instability of acid halides (carbonyls there, but all of them in general) pretty much ensures this. So the civilized world has that going for it, which is nice.


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How do you test for sarin leaks? With a rabbit.

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Comments

  1. #1 phisrow
    August 26, 2008

    I wonder if wearing that outfit eliminates the normal urge to pet the fuzzy animal and say something either obvious or nonsensical in the babytalk voice.

    On the more serious side, I for one am very glad that Germany decided that using nerve agents during the second world war wasn’t worth the risk of reprisals. One can hardly say that the war went well; but had the available tabun and sarin been used…

  2. #2 Brian X
    August 26, 2008

    It’s interesting how sarin figures into one of the untold arms races of World War II — from what I’ve read (caveat Wikipedior) Sarin and a chemical relative, Tabun, were part of Nazi Germany’s research during WWII into organophosphate weapons. They were evidently working on it quite urgently as well, as they took it for granted that the Allies were doing the same research as they were (it was true for the atom bomb, right?). But when it came right down to it, they never got around to using it… and the Allies had never even broached the question.

    There is a story somewhere about a German chemical weapons factory worker who got two liters of tabun dumped down the back of his hazmat suit. He was dead before anyone could even open the zipper.

  3. #3 Romeo Vitelli
    August 26, 2008

    There has been research into making sarin last longer. In theory, you could incorporate it into a binary weapon so it wouldn’t get mixed into a single compound until actually deployed. The shelf life could be as long as five years that way. Such is ingenuity.

  4. #4 Philip
    August 26, 2008

    In my organic chemistry course we went over the use of binary munitions which allows for long term, ready-for-immediate-use storage for this chemical munition. A faulty memory was refreshed with the help of wikipedia: Isopropanol, isopropyl amine and methylphosphonyl difluoride.

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    August 26, 2008

    Weaponized US nerve agents were typically stabilized with 1-3% diisopropyl or dicyclohexyl carbodiimide. Over time the muck Officially gelled, rendering munitions notably difficult to neutralize. The charges might have been purposely thickened for adherence and sustained contamination vs. evaporation. War agents seek to disable, wound, and mutilate not kill. Corpses are disregarded. Casualties bog down immense infrastructure, financial, and personnel resources. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were historic not for burning and crushing but for radiation effects later.

    In 1918 German corporal Adolf Hitler was temporarily blinded by a British mustard gas attack in Flanders. Steep learning curve. Bush the Lesser will be historic less for spending the NSF’s annual budget each week annoying Muslims than for creating some 80,000 chronically disabled veterans. That alone will be a $billion/year in expenses, forever.

  6. #6 The Chemist
    August 26, 2008

    I can verify that Brian X. I can’t remember where I read it, but IG Farben was doing a lot of work on organophosphates before, during, and after WWII. They are used as insecticides as well as chemical weapons.

    Considering the extreme toxicity and speed of tabun, I suspect no one bothered to try and open his zipper.

  7. #7 milkshake
    August 26, 2008

    I remember that 15 years ago DIC was an inexpensive peptide coupling reagent, almost as cheap as DCC.

    It turns out it was the sarin stockpiling that made for diisopropyl carbodiimide to be a cheap chemical – DIC was manufactured for army as a Sarin stabiliser additive, to eat the acid and moisture traces that ruin sarin over time! Unfortunately, it was later found that the formed diisopropyl urea produced over time in the sarin ammunition …congealed. The sarin in the US legacy chemical ammunition is perfectly viable but it turned into a jam – which makes it very hard to dispose of as it cannot be simply drained out.

    Now Sarin is no longer stockpiled the DIC became pretty expensive again.

  8. #8 G Barnett
    August 27, 2008

    Back when my dad was in the Army, he was part of the Chemical Corps, and over the years I’ve heard all sorts of interesting stuff about the various chemical weapons, including just how nasty and deadly sarin is.

    Flash forward to around 1995 or so — I’m off in a remote corner of Bulgaria teaching conversational English to highschoolers, when one of my students tells me of what was on the news the prior evening — the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. The conversation went something like this:

    “Did you hear about the nerve gas on the Tokyo subway last night?”
    “Wait, what??”
    “Yes, some cult used sarin. 10 people died.”

    “They used sarin, and ONLY killed 10 people? Someone f***ed up….”
  9. #9 Dave
    August 29, 2008

    It’s a good thing, then, that we only have a little over a half-million pounds of the stuff down here (and, that’s only about 1.7 percent of the country’s stockpile!).

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/facility/blue_grass.htm

    Dave

  10. #10 Alex Besogonov
    August 31, 2008

    When I was a child we lived about 2 kilometers from the biggest chemical weapons storage in Russia (http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/kambarka.htm).

    The scary fact: we didn’t even know about it.

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    September 4, 2008

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  12. #12 zay?flama
    September 23, 2008

    Casualties bog down immense infrastructure, financial, and personnel resources. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were historic not for burning and crushing but for radiation effects later.

  13. #13 eee_eff
    December 13, 2008

    On the more serious side, I for one am very glad that Germany decided that using nerve agents during the second world war wasn’t worth the risk of reprisals.

    Not completely true–the Nazi’s did use nerve agents against the Warsaw uprising.

  14. #14 Damager
    September 25, 2009

    To comment on what Uncle Al said regarding sustained contamination vs evaporation: I am a Chemical Corps soldier and over the course of training we covered nerve agents of course. there are basically two types, persistent and non-persistent. Sarin is classified as non-persistent in the G series of nerve agents. The G series is used to rapidly produce casualties in an area to later be occupied, usually preceding an infantry assault. V series nerve agents however, are oily and do not evaporate very quickly at all, normally used for complete terrain denial. So, the thickening of Sarin actually wouldn’t make much sense when other agents, such as VX are already available.