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Northwest Scientists Seek New Ways To Trace Chemical Weapons

Anna King
Northwest News Network

RICHLAND, Wash. -- President Barack Obama has been publicly warning Syria’s leaders not to use chemical weapons against their own people. The news is unexpectedly relevant in southeast Washington. Researchers at at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing new scientific techniques to trace chemical agents back to their sources.

Carlos Fraga is a dapperly dressed Ph.D. chemist, doing research for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. His lab looks normal enough -- that is until he points out a certain cabinet.

"This cabinet is a dry cabinet; it’s where we keep our cyanide samples.”

Being that close to odorless and tasteless stuff that can kill you is a bit unsettling. But Fraga’s goal with all these locked-up deadly chemicals is to keep people safe.

He says terrorists are much more likely to wage a chemical attack than a biological one or nuclear bomb. “Because it’s easy to acquire these chemicals a lot of this stuff can be shipped to your home.”

He means the chemical building blocks of some of these weapons.

Fraga leads me deep into his brightly-lit lab to show me one of the instruments that he's using. It's a machine about the size of a standard kitchen oven. He puts some tiny samples into it. The whirling machine looks for the tiny bits of impurities in each deadly chemical.

The machine runs samples through a very long tube. It looks something like large-gauge fishing line. And spits out a graph of its findings on a computer sitting nearby.

“You have a mixture, you have some sort of liquid," Fraga says. "And each of these little peaks that are coming out are individual components …”

Fraga isn’t looking at the dangerous chemicals themselves. Instead, he’s interested in the impurities that create a specific pattern. It’s almost like a signature. This machine examines the deadly nerve agent sarin and matches it to the chemical building blocks it came from.

Fraga explains another example: cyanide is made with water. And he can tell the difference between water from North America and water from parts Europe through tiny impurities called anions.

“We’re looking at anions that are in the parts-per-million, sometimes parts per billion -– they’re really low levels. They don’t really care how much is in there, but we do.”

Fraga hopes to one day create a database map of sorts of more and more samples. Then his work might act as a deterrent to people or leaders who want to use chemical weapons. Or, he says, states like Syria. "They might want to take better care of them and not let them get into the black market or something because the United States can match it back to them if it’s ever used.”

Fraga hopes he doesn’t have to use his bench science in real life. But he knows that if something does happen, his team will likely be called in to do this new form of chemical-forensics.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.