World War I Mustard Gas Victim

World War I Mustard Gas Victim

Researchers have developed a new technique that allows them to take a “chemical fingerprint” of chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas, rat poison and the nerve agents VX and Sarin. This helps them track the source.

Chemical forensics involves identifying compounds. But chemist Audrey Martin and colleagues at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California developed a technique that allows them to go three more steps: where, what and how.

Presenting last week at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco, Martin explained how her team can discern a chemical’s signature.

Here’s Science News’ explanation:

The technique relies on the fact that there are often several routes to the same chemical; for example there are 12 different ways of making mustard gas. Depending on the route and the ingredients, there are various chemical by-products, impurities and non reactive ingredients. The presence and proportions of these molecules can provide clues to how the compound was made.

In some cases, such as with the rat poison tetramine, one synthetic route might be ruled out entirely by the presence of a particular ingredient. Signatures of the reaction conditions, such as temperature and pressure, may also be hidden in the final product.

The team has identified chemical signatures for several compounds, including Sarin gas and VX. A computer application developed by Martin can crunch the chemical profiles to compare them with one another. By documenting how the chemicals evolve over time, the researchers can also tell when the chemical was deployed.

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