Washington Post article on ammonium nitrate and the Beirut explosions

The Washington Post published an article on the risks, dangers and properties of ammonium nitrate – the chemical that was in all likelihood responsible for the catastrophic explosion in Beirut. It was a pleasure to be able to contribute some insights. Read the article here.

It is probably a natural thing that explosions of this size trigger conspiracy theories. From a nuclear detonation to the infamous “red mercury” – numerous “theories” float our social media channels.

This is interesting also from a historical perspective: When an explosion of ammonium nitrate for fertilizers of similar size blew up the BASF plant in Oppau in 1921 – just a few years after the end of World War 1 – there were theories floating in international media that secret weapon experiments were carried out with the possible involvement of Fritz Haber – the father of German gas warfare in the war but also Nobel Prize winner for inventing the Haber process to produce ammonia from nitrogen from the air. This ammonia was the precursor for the ammonium nitrate. It also shows the dual use dilemma of many chemicals.

Article “Corona and Bioterrorism” won prize from the Stanton Foundation

The Stanton Foundation (well known for their work on nuclear security and other field) currently runs a size contest “Applying History to Clarify the COVID-19” and selects winning articles and Op-Eds through an advisory panel from the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.

The article “Corona and Bioterrorism: How serious is the Threat?” I published together with Prof Peter Neumann of King’s College on War on The Rocks, was awarded a prize in this contest. The Selection Committee described the article as “an illuminating analysis of the risk of bioterrorism in light of coronavirus, informed by history and technical expertise.”

War On The Rocks: Corona and Bioterrorism

Together with Prof. Peter Neumann from King’s College London I have published an article on Corona and Bioterrorism on the online platform “War On The Rocks”.


We argue that the challenges for a sophisticated large scale bioterrist attack remain significant unless the attackers receive major help from a state or can use a states infrastructure as an insider. The likelihood that a terrorist group will come up with a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2 by themselves having a „zero-day-exploit“ on the human immune sytem is very low. However more crude types of attack remain a viable possibility.

New Scientific Paper of Interest

New paper from the Australian Defense Lab DSTG describing the analysis of three different stock of the nerve agent VX by NMR, LC-HRMS/MS, GC-MS(EI and GC-MS(CI) and identification of impurities that serve as chemical attribution signatures (CAS). The CAS profile contained 44 compounds of which 37 were identified. Several of these compounds could be traced back to the precursor chemicals used for synthesis.


Teaching at AKNZ

This week I was at the German Academy for crisis management, emergency planning and civil protection (AKNZ) where I had the pleasure to talk about specific risks of novel 4th generation nerve agents to first responders. The audience were CBRN instructors from the state firefighting academies with the idea to get this information through them to the first responders across the country. Local fire services – many of them voluntary – are likely to be the first on the scene of an incident. Protecting them and enabling them to respond is key to limit casualties and mitigate effects.

Working group on disarmament and non-proliferation of chemical and biological weapons

On 12 February I was able to attend the annual meeting of the working group on disarmament and non-proliferation of chemical and biological weapons (Arbeitskreis Abrüstung und Nichtverbreitung biologischer und chemischer Waffen). It’s a forum initiated by German academics active in the field and brings together experts from the chemical and biological sciences, policy makers, military and non-proliferation experts. This year the Heinrich Böll Stiftung hosted the event in their Berlin headquarters that brought together about 60 participants

Presentations and discussion centered around current issues related to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions but for example also touched issues like the enhancement of laboratory capabilities in the bio field to support the UNSGM mechanism.

My main take away point (similar to meetings in earlier years) was the importance of such meetings that join academia, civil society, policy makers, non-proliferation and military experts around one table. In our special fields which are highly technical and require a sound scientific base but are also deeply influence by political considerations it remains a challenge to bring these worlds together. My gratitude goes to the organizers, especially Prof. Kathryn Nixdorf, Dr. Una Jakob and Dr. Mirko Himmel.