Efficient "micro-reactors" make it easy for stockpiles of chemical weapons to be secretly produced, according to Tuan Nguyen of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Centre for Global Security Research.

"The inherently small physical size of the equipment and small space required make it attractive for clandestine operations," Nguyen wrote in a paper to be published in the 12 August edition of the journal Science.

"The ability to produce chemicals of interest in a safer and more feasible manner, with little signature produced, could encourage their application for malicious intent," he explained on Thursday.

Reactors ranging in size from a notebook to a credit card produce inexpensive, high-grade toxins, according to Nguyen.

Dangerous chemicals

Among the chemicals already produced by mini-machines are hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and methyl isocyanate, he wrote.

Micro-reactor technology was recently put to use in China to make explosively volatile nitroglycerine as quickly as 10kg per hour, according to Nguyen.  

"The inherently small physical size of the equipment and small space required make it attractive for clandestine operations"

Tuan Nguyen, 
Centre for Global Security
Research
 

"Another danger created by the growing use of micro-reactors is that chemical weapon precursors could be synthesised rather than purchased, making it more difficult to discover the preparation of chemical weapons," he wrote.

Micro-reactors threaten enforcement of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty banning production, stockpiling and use of toxic arsenals, according to Nguyen.

Convention

The treaty has been signed by 170 nations. "The key issue with these advancements in science and technology is that it is going to make it more difficult to monitor and verify compliance of the Chemical Weapons Convention," Nguyen said.

Nguyen urged the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to form alliances with not only with technology innovators to assess the dangers and find solutions.

He also called for implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which would tighten controls on chemical weaponry and criminalise proliferation activities.

The lab where Nguyen works is a US weapons research centre. The lab's compound about 72 km southeast of San Francisco is funded by the US Department of Energy and managed by the California university system.