A fictional weapon

  • #1
hilbert2
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Has any work of fiction contained an idea of a chemical weapon that acts as a catalyst of cellulose auto-oxidation and causes spontaneous ignition of anything made of paper (and possibly wood) already when it's present in air at ppm concentrations? Someone must have thought of that during the cold war arms race, because it's not thermodynamically impossible and there's no restrictive limit for how small concentrations a catalyst can be effective at. If it could be made effective enough, a few kilograms of that kind of chemical could torch a whole city if spread in the air as an aerosol. And really scary for the enemy if they don't know what's causing it.

I got this idea when looking at an Aliens movie where a drop of alien's corrosive saliva ate through several floors/ceilings in a way that wouldn't be stoichiometrically possible unless it's something that catalyzes the air oxidation of metal at room temperature and isn't consumed in the process.
 

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  • #2
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So we want this "Catalyst" to act at sub Parts Per Trillion? Best catalyst can turn over several million molecules, and we want it to stop before it comes after our country. Problem is that fire, generally a gas phase reaction, requires Oxygen. Heat, and Fuel. Wood has to be heated until it breaks down to form enough gases so that it can burn, and heated enough that the process continues on its own.
However the bacteria tha cause woodrot is self propagating if you are willing to.outwait your enemy.
 
  • #3
hilbert2
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Problem is that fire, generally a gas phase reaction, requires Oxygen. Heat, and Fuel. Wood has to be heated until it breaks down to form enough gases so that it can burn, and heated enough that the process continues on its own.
Something made of paper has so little mass (and heat capacity) per surface area that you only have to oxidize some cellulose from the surface and it heats up enough to catch actual fire. Or the catalyst could accelerate the oxidation of any other similar material you find in an urban environment. If you consider some kind of advanced nanotechnology with molecular machines making copies of themselves and at some point going self-destruct mode and lighting up everything, it's not impossible at all, but the question is whether some chemical of less than 100 atoms per molecule can do that. Someone could even produce that kind of substance by accident, but it sounds unlikely.

It's like a version of the bat bomb with molecule-size "bats".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_bomb
 
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  • #4
256bits
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Something like napalm , or phosphorus - both have been used in bombing missions.
 
  • #5
hilbert2
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Something like napalm , or phosphorus - both have been used in bombing missions.
An incendiary or aerosol bomb device contains more energy per mass than an explosive, because it doesn't need to have the oxidizer in. This catalyst bomb is something where you don't need the fuel either, because it's already there.
 
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  • #6
256bits
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You could drop pure oxygen, and that would start a fire on paper.

throwing out some ideas,
Not necessarily what you want, but it may help you out.
Maybe one could use something like hydrofluoric acid, a mild acid but it does attack organic matter, oxides, ceramics such as glass. One should not throw a spill of this acid into a sand bucket.

Other than using an ignition source, we can have spontaneous combustion.
Spontaneous combustion can be done with hydrocarbons by elevating the temperature to a certain level at which the fuel ignites. If the "natural" oxidation heat production is greater than the rate at which it can dissipated away, the temperature can rise to the ignition temperature. The oily rag hazard. Or we can have microorganisms producing enough heat to do the same - ie compost heat.

One can also have a phrophoric combustion using the oxygen from the air - metals such as phosphorus.

And two compounds can react without the oxygen from the air needed as being an oxidizer.
for a demonstration.
hypergolic reaction.
 
  • #7
hilbert2
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Or we can have microorganisms producing enough heat to do the same - ie compost heat.
A microorganism can't produce much heat without being destroyed itself. Some plant disease virus could possibly be engineered to make vegetation dry up completely and become a fire hazard.

Edit: Here's an article about platinum nanoparticles causing spontaneous ignition of methanol/air mixture at room temperature:

https://rdw.rowan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1428&context=etd

If that kind of particles could be made more effective and affordable, and you put them floating in the air, they could light fires at gas stations or when people spray something flammable from aerosol cans (a bit inhumane attack to have someone suddenly burn their head with hairspray, though).
 
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  • #8
256bits
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I just had another idea, brought on by a grass fire just outside my place a week ago.
Firemen came and sprayed the area down.

it was a hot sunny sunny day.
Cars were parked around the loop.
Around 6 PM the fire started.
People were outside, so anyone deliberately starting the fire would have been seen.
My theory, based somewhat on that building, a few years back, in Britain I think it was, with glass paneling, that was scorching the surrounding area at certain sun elevations.

For the grass fire, I think that the sunlight was focused, magnified or whatever from the parked cars onto the grass causing the blaze.
So if one could drop balls of glass with catchers so that they would hang in trees or the top of vegetation, perhaps the sunlight could also be utilized the start fires over a wide sunlit area on a hot day.

Or, if balls of a magnifying material is insufficient for sci fi suspense,
since it is fictional ( and perhaps there is a real photo-sensitive chemical that combusts )
a chemical that is activated with a delay after the drop, by contact with organics, proton or electron exchange, rendering the chemical photo-sensitive ready for combustion when the sun shines.
Somewhat similar to the nanoparticles mentioned, but not just for methane, unless one wants all the cows to combust and disrupt the food supply for the population.
 
  • #10
256bits
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But a car doesn't have concave surfaces that you'd need for directing light to a focal point.
That was the only thing, ie three cars, nearby where the fire started.
I can't imagine what else.
Maybe a glass bottle, or shiny metal, plastic in the grass?
I should have asked the firemen what they thought how it started.
 
  • #11
hilbert2
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I should have asked the firemen what they thought how it started.
A spark from food being grilled outdoors, or someone's cigarette?
 
  • #12
256bits
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We are getting away from your inquiry, I do apologize, but barbeque no, cigarette well maybe
 
  • #13
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Something made of paper has so little mass (and heat capacity) per surface area that you only have to oxidize some cellulose from the surface and it heats up enough to catch actual fire. Or the catalyst could accelerate the oxidation of any other similar material you find in an urban environment. If you consider some kind of advanced nanotechnology with molecular machines making copies of themselves and at some point going self-destruct mode and lighting up everything, it's not impossible at all, but the question is whether some chemical of less than 100 atoms per molecule can do that. Someone could even produce that kind of substance by accident, but it sounds unlikely.

It's like a version of the bat bomb with molecule-size "bats".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bat_bomb
Company I worked for did flammability testing for the FAA and we did forensic investigations. Obviosly aware of common arson techniques. I was also a production chemist. There are scaling issues you ignore and physical properties of matter that you also ignore. Cellulose (wood, cotton, paper) is flammable with a macroscopic heat source, i.e. it takes a lot of energy to start burning, although it ignites at a lower temperature (flash point) it burns slowly. Polyester takes a higher *temperature* to ignite however much less energy like a spark, and burns faster and hotter than cellulose. You think of papers strewn on a desk. But most paper is in a protected space like archive boxes. Have you ever tried to set fire to a ream of paper? Not easy. Wood is usually painted or stained, making access to the cellulose difficult. Weighing paper measures out active Platinum catalyst with no risk. Compost piles catch fire due to heat from metabolism of sugars and other energy compounds in grass etc. Not cellulose. Know that generally heat is required to activate Oxygen molecules, O2 being an unreactive gas until its double bond is broken, requiring heat, spark, something. Platinum on carbon is a common catalyst and Platinum on cellulose has in literature not oxidized its substrates even in solution.
Note the reason alcohol is added to gasoline is alcohol groups slow down the gasoline/oxygen chain reaction. Cellulose is all alcohol groups.
"Something made of paper has so little mass (and heat capacity) per surface area that you only have to oxidize some cellulose from the surface and it heats up enough to catch actual fire." You'll tell me then why homes that detonate due to natural gas leak don't set fire to wood and exposed paper?
 
  • #14
hilbert2
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I have also worked in a fire safety engineering job, and when this is about something that is only remotely possible, but potentially as dangerous as a nuclear device, then it shouldn't be a problem in a discussion of "science fiction" weapons.

Think about Chinese-style paper spheres around electric lamps.
 
  • #15
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I have also worked in a fire safety engineering job, and when this is about something that is only remotely possible, but potentially as dangerous as a nuclear device, then it shouldn't be a problem in a discussion of "science fiction" weapons.

Think about Chinese-style paper spheres around electric lamps.
 
  • #16
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"Think about Chinese-style paper spheres around electric lamps." But getting nothing. Makes me think of Japanese paper spheres with candles inside they launch at peace ralleys.
OK. Scifi, so different planets. But since this impacts civillians more than military, are you aiming for this to be a "terror weapon"?
Have you considered the repercussions of burning down forests?
The damage from burning the enemy's cellulose will force their troops to wear polyester uniforms, firing the same bullets from the same guns. Doesn't knock out critical infrastructure needed to wage war, just piss them off.
In several scifi stories (et movies, TV) an empire is beaten back by a superweapon, only to have the defeated empire reverse engineer the superweapon and use it against the first empire. Because no one else had the weapon (so they thought) they had no countermeasures against it.
A 70 kiloton nuke self-contained core is 24" long x 6 inches in diameter at 40 pounds. Soon to be made smaller. Megatons if you pile a lot of free depleted Uranium (from old airliners?) around it (well only 40% explodes vs 70% in core). Classic scifi "Dune" used "atomics" to breach the shield wall. Nuclear weapons will be around for awhile. Even if we get new superweapons: people still use gunpowder invented thousands of years ago.
 
  • #17
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FYI US money has no cellulose (the test pens have Chromate which reacts with cellulose) so would survive.
 
  • #18
hilbert2
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OK. Scifi, so different planets. But since this impacts civillians more than military, are you aiming for this to be a "terror weapon"?
It's more like something that you use against a completely unpredictable dictator who has nuclear weapons at hand. You attack in a way that makes unexplainable things (fires in this case) happen without visible reason and that scares them on their knees.
 
  • #19
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It's more like something that you use against a completely unpredictable dictator who has nuclear weapons at hand. You attack in a way that makes unexplainable things (fires in this case) happen without visible reason and that scares them on their knees.
Isn't "scare them on their knees" just another wording for terror? And would it be a good idea to scare a completely unpredictable dictator who has nuclear weapons at hand?
 
  • #20
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It sounds like you're looking for Chlorine triflouride. That stuff was nasty...

https://thehistoryvault.co.uk/the-nazi-super-weapon-so-dangerous-the-nazis-never-used-it/

it oxidized anything - at one point burning concrete and gravel. not melting, or dissolving, but burning, like wood burns. but gravel. it burnt through 30cm of concrete and 90cm of gravel. gravel.

apparently it was transportable in steel (presumably stainless), so could be delivered to locations and sprayed.

the joys of this stuff:

-boils to toxic gas at room temperature
-toxic gas burns very easily, at 2400C! (that will melt steel beams)
-doing so produces hydrofloric acid and hydrochloric acid, as steam, dissolving most things nearby
-it explodes on contact with water
-forms a contact-triggered explosive on contact with carbon

so if it doesn't poison you, incinerate you, dissolve you, or blow you up, it will turn your skin to an explosive.

does that fit your terrifying weapon requirements?
 
  • #21
hilbert2
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does that fit your terrifying weapon requirements?
You would need hundreds of kilograms of that to incinerate a large area, and much more damage would be made by its toxicity when inhaled.

There are already noble metal nanoparticles in air pollution, and it could some day be a large enough amount to cause an increased fire safety risk. Not sure whether those particles could be filtered from air like you can recover noble metals from wastewater in a cost-effective way.
 
  • #22
I think it actually exists, it’s called a flamethrower
 

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