How Syria's Chemical Weapons Are Being Destroyed

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Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, military and civilian experts aboard a U.S. cargo ship, the MV Cape Ray, are disposing of Syria's arsenal of deadly chemical weapons. Some of these chemicals — including those needed to produce the nerve agent sarin — were reportedly used by the Syrian government in attacks last year that killed nearly 1,500 Syrian civilians.

Much of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile has already made its way to Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States, where government contractors have been working for months to destroy roughly 1,300 tons of chemicals. The arsenal is being destroyed in accordance with regulations set forth by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In September 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to join the OPCW's Chemical Weapons Convention, which required him to forfeit Syria's chemical weapons and destroy chemical production and storage facilities around the country. [5 Lethal Chemical Warfare Agents]

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But getting Syria to put an end to its chemical weapons program was only half the battle, said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert with SecureBio, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) security firm based in the United Kingdom. In the midst of the nation's civil war, the OPCW was tasked with creating a plan to safely remove chemical weapons from Syria. There was also the somewhat daunting task of disposing of 1,300 tons of deadly chemicals.

"Nobody would accept this stuff," de Bretton-Gordon told Live Science. Germany and Albania, for instance, refused to let the most lethal of Syria's chemical weapons cross their borders, he said.

The United States eventually stepped forward with a plan for disposing of what de Bretton-Gordon calls the "nastiest" of Syria's chemicals, which include mustard gas and DF compound, a component of the nerve agent sarin. Rather than ship these chemicals to a particular nation, the U.S. outfitted a marine vessel with the necessary equipment to destroy the chemicals at sea.

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Hydrolysis at sea

The MV Cape Ray, currently anchored in international waters in an "unspecified" location in the Mediterranean, is a first-of-its kind vessel equipped with two so-called field deployable hydrolysis systems (FDHS) that are used to neutralize toxic chemicals.

Hydrolysis systems aren't a new technology, said de Bretton-Gordon, who worked as a CBRN specialist in the British Army for 23 years. These systems have been used for decades to neutralize the chemical stockpiles of nations like the U.S. and the U.K. But putting these systems aboard a marine vessel is a unique way to deal with chemical weapons.

The Cape Ray contains two FDHS units, contained within an "environmentally sealed" tent, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Each unit is equipped with a titanium-lined reactor in which corrosive materials can be processed safely. The units also have built-in redundant systems that protect them from unanticipated glitches.

The hydrolysis units mix about 100 gallons (380 liters) of toxic chemicals with thousands of gallons of seawater, as well as another neutralizing chemical, or reagent, de Bretton-Gordon said.

In some cases, a mix of reagents — base compounds such as potassium or sodium hydroxide — are used for this purpose, said Dennis Reutter, a retired U.S. Army scientist who was not involved in the OPCW program for Syria's chemical weapons. For the mustard agent, which isn't soluble in water, Reutter said that a co-solvent, like monomethylamine, is typically used in the hydrolysis process.