Pocket-Size Reactors May Raise Chemical Terrorism Risk

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 11, 2005

Chemical reactors are shrinking to notebook and even credit card size. The technology offers a safer way to produce some toxic materials—but it could be deadly in the wrong hands, experts warn.

"Micro-reactors" convert chemicals—for example a fuel cell micro-reactor may be able to turn methanol into hydrogen to power a car—in much the same way a building-size chemical recator does, only on a smaller scale.

The tiny reactors are not easily obtainable, and the chemicals used in them can be highly unstable. As a result, experts say, they aren't the most practical or efficient weapon choices for terrorist groups—at least for now.

But the miniature systems have already been used to produce potentially lethal but useful chemicals such as hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and methyl isocyanate.

China's Xi'an Huian Chemical company, in partnership with Germany's Institute for Microtechnology Mainz (IMM), has used "micro-process" technology to create nitroglycerine, a toxic and highly explosive chemical, for medical uses.

Using a micro-reactor, Xi'an Huian Chemical and IMM "were able to synthesize [nitroglycerine] at a rate of 10 kilograms [22 pounds] an hour. So you can imagine that there's an ability to produce a lot of material," said Tuan Nguyen of the Center for Global Security Research, a division of the U.S. government's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Nguyen addresses the potential dangers of miniaturized chemical weapons in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.

"You can conceive that you wouldn't need very much phosgene gas [a severe respiratory irritant that has been used in chemical warfare] to disrupt a subway car in Manhattan," said Ronald Besser, professor of chemical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology's New Jersey Center for MicroChemical Systems (NJCMS).

"A very small reactor that could be transported in a briefcase might be able to produce enough of a highly toxic material to injure a lot of people," he said. "That concept is a possibility that I think needs to be dealt with."

A Safer Way to Make Hazardous Materials

Micro-reactor technology is still in its infancy, but the technology offers a suite of valuable benefits. The ultraefficient systems offer a safer working environment for hazardous materials.

"Everything is in small quantities and in a small reactor, so that, even if you do have some kind of leak, it can be contained," NJCMS's Besser explained. "It's a safer way to work with toxic chemicals."

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