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ICG Risk Blog - [ Manufacturing efficiency gives rise to a new arms race: convergence of legitimate pharma-chemical, illicit drug, and CW/BW agent ]

Manufacturing efficiency gives rise to a new arms race: convergence of legitimate pharma-chemical, illicit drug, and CW/BW agent


Coining the term "glide slope to the desktop" after reflecting on the progression of copying from carbon paper to mimeograph to centralized toner copiers using proprietary consumables to laser printers to color inkjet and now color laser desktop printers, it is now one of our truisms that every technology has its glide slope (where the angle of descent indicates the cost threshold of acquisition over time) where its capacity will ultimately get to anyone's desktop, anywhere and for any purpose.

Two of the glide slops that we track in an effort to anticipate potential threats are chemical and biological agent production. We have long taken for granted that the market-entry restraints on chemical (including organophosphate or nerve agent) and bio-agent production, as well as their detection thresholds, have plummeted to the point that batch sizes for "low-casualty" attacks (few thousand casualties) relatively easy to produce in that:

  • There's no prerequisite for nation-state sponsorship
  • A straightforward "mid-tech" approach using a small, educable group of committed individuals is sufficient
  • Competent dual-use industrial base provides all equipment either used, surplus, stolen, and acquired from bankruptcies or closures (no need to buy new)
  • Organophosphates are reasonably easy to produce from the pesticide and flame retardant manufacturing base
  • Certain binary nerve agents are easier to produce as their binaries are individually less toxic
  • Terrorists will dispense with the usual barriers to entry of military weaponization and environmental disposal
  • Unique alloy components can be dispensed with in favor of common stainless steel if the lifespan of the production line is short

The upshot is that a "small-scale" facility can target an enclosed space equal to an office building or subway station. We now see developments in manufacturing technology and synthesis science that will drive production convergence of all sectors while its steepens (shortens) the glide slope to the desktop:

  • Legitimate chemical, agrochemical, and pharmacological
  • State-sponsored and non-state-sponsored CW/BW chem-bio agent
  • Illicit "recreational pharmaceutical" drugs

What will be tremendous boon to the legitimate sector (easy transfer from prototype into production, high throughput, effortless scale-up, and greatly improved safety) will make very hard work for proliferation inspectors.

In the shorter term:

  1. Continuously operating, computer controlled microreactors producing significant quantities of product, toxic and otherwise, in very small "footprints"
  2. New catalytic processes and automated process control permitting just-in-time production with fewer contaminating emissions -- an economic and societal boon to the commercial manufacturer but a shield to the illicit producer as it reduces detectable byproducts
  3. Automated computer controls making production processes safer and more efficient, requiring fewer personnel with reduced skill and experience
  4. Increasingly versatile, multipurpose -- effectively dual-use -- production facilities making fine chemicals badly complicate the determination of intent, especially if a small line is nested in a larger facility
  5. Chemical production facilities and skills are dispersing out of high cost manufacturing areas as pharmaceutical intermediates spread to low cost countries and production of commodity chemicals is shifted close to sources of raw materials

In the longer term:

  1. Automated synthesis methods combined with high-throughput screening protocols may likely yield new toxic agents not specifically proscribed, or even known if kept secret, by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)

Impact examples:

  • Microreactors have already safely produced hydrogen cyanide (HCN), methyl isocyanate (MIC) -- which killed so many at Bhopal, and phosgene -- a vesicant blister agent. 10-fold or 100-fold parallelized arrays can achieve multi-kg or ton range output
  • New catalysts allow production of toxic chemicals "from intermediates that are not monitored under current CWC inspection regimes." Following Bhopal, DuPont created a just-in-time production process for MIC without using traditional precursors. New catalytics for the production of phosgene and thionyl chloride (a CW precursor) are cleaner and more productive than their predecessors -- while using different precursors

We're on the eve of integrating microdevices into compact microplants that create "pocket" chemical plants that fit in a briefcase and cannot be monitored or detected.

Manufacturing efficiency gives rise to another arms race while illicit drug production morphs.

Trends in processing and manufacturing that will affect implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention
George W. Parshall
Pure Appl. Chem., Vol. 74, No. 12, pp. 2259-2263, 2002

Microreactors. Prospects already achieved and possible misuse
Holger Löwe, Volker Hessel, and Andreas Mueller
Pure Appl. Chem., Vol. 74, No. 12, pp. 2271-2276, 2002

Gordon Housworth

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