Copyright R. Zamenhof, 2013.
There are totally unsubstantiated reports that shortly before the Soviet Union's demise, the Soviet government decided to rid itself of all its supplies (if such supplies ever existed) of Red Mercury to protect the nation from terrorist elements that might utilize Red Mercury to manufacture ultra-compact ("pocket") fusion weapons. The Red Mercury was reputedly eliminated by packaging small quantities of it within small household appliances, such as toasters, sewing machines, etc., which were then exported out of the Soviet Union. The contorted logic of such a decision by a world power defies common sense; but not, apparently, for the ISIS buyers who were ordered to purchase such household items from the Soviets to gain ownership of Red Mercury hidden inside them, the "doomsday" material that could potentially change the face of terrorism throughout the world. This picture shows some Arab believers contemplating two sewing machines that ostensibly contain Red Mercury. Such Red Mercury containing appliances are still today being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to the dumb and ignorant on the international terrorism markets.
C.J. Chivers, in the New York Times, wrote an excellent, though scientifically lay-level introduction to the present interest by ISIS in obtaining supplies of the “doomsday material of dreams” called Red Mercury. I would like to copy and paste his excellent introduction to this topic before delving more deeply into the science.
The hunt for the ultimate weapon began in January 2014, when Abu Omar, a smuggler who fills shopping lists for the Islamic State, met a jihadist commander in Tal Abyad, a Syrian town near the Turkish border. The Islamic State had raised its black flag over Tal Abyad several days before, and the commander, a former cigarette vendor known as Timsah, Arabic for ‘‘crocodile,’’ was the area’s new security chief. The Crocodile had an order to place, which he said he had received from his bosses in Mosul, a city in northwestern Iraq that the Islamic State would later overrun.
Abu Omar, a Syrian whose wispy beard hinted at his jihadist sympathies, was young, wiry and adaptive. Since war erupted in Syria in 2011, he had taken many noms de guerre — including Abu Omar — and found a niche for himself as a freelance informant and trader for hire in the extremist underground. By the time he met the Crocodile, he said, he had become a valuable link in the Islamic State’s local supply chain. Working from Sanliurfa, a Turkish city north of the group’s operational hub in Raqqa, Syria, he purchased and delivered many of the common items the martial statelet required: flak jackets, walkie-talkies, mobile phones, medical instruments, satellite antennas, SIM cards and the like. Once, he said, he rounded up 1,500 silver rings with flat faces upon which the world’s most prominent terrorist organization could stamp its logo. Another time, a French jihadist hired him to find a Turkish domestic cat; Syrian cats, it seemed, were not the friendly sort.
War materiel or fancy; business was business. The Islamic State had needs, it paid to have them met and moving goods across the border was not especially risky. The smugglers used the same well-established routes by which they had helped foreign fighters reach Syria for at least three years. Turkish border authorities did not have to be eluded, Abu Omar said. They had been co-opted. ‘‘It is easy,’’ he boasted. ‘‘We bought the soldiers.’’ This time, however, the Crocodile had an unusual request: The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.
Abu Omar knew what this meant. Red mercury — reputedly precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.
Abu Omar understood the implications. The Islamic State was seeking a weapon that could do more than strike fear in its enemies. It sought a weapon that could kill its enemies wholesale, instantly changing the character of the war. Imagine a mushroom cloud rising over the fronts of Syria and Iraq. Imagine the jihadists’ foes scattered and ruined, the caliphate expanding and secure.
Imagine the price the Islamic State would pay.
Abu Omar thought he might have a lead. He had a cousin in Syria who told him about red mercury that other jihadists had seized from a corrupt rebel group. Maybe he could arrange a sale. And so soon Abu Omar set out, off for the front lines outside Latakia, a Syrian government stronghold, in pursuit of the gullible man’s shortcut to a nuclear bomb.
[C.J. Chivers, New York Times]
The Science Behind Red Mercury's "Awesome Powers"
There is nothing “magic” or “doomsday” about Red Mercury. The red-orange appearance of this material is simply due to its compounding with iodine as mercury-iodide. None of the isotopes of the element mercury are fissile. This means that they cannot be “split” by absorbing neutrons the way uranium-235 or plutonium-239 can. It is the splitting of a heavy isotope into two lighter isotopes that releases the extraordinary yield of energy that is the basis of the fission nuclear reaction, exemplified by the two nuclear bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in December 1945. Nor can Red Mercury have any role in nuclear fusion, since the process of nuclear fusion requires the nuclear coalescence under very high temperature and pressure of two very light isotopes, such as hydrogen, helium, deuterium, or tritium – which are about 100 times lighter than mercury.
A brief explanation of the operating principle of thermonuclear (fusion) weapons is useful to explain the contorted pseudoscience behind Red Mercury.
In the cold-war days, when the U.S. believed that there was a high likelihood that its thermonuclear weapons arsenal would in fact be used, the light isotopes that were used as the fusion fuel in its thermonuclear bombs and warheads were deuterium (hydrogen with an additional neutron) and tritium(hydrogen with two additional neutrons). A primary fission (uranium-235 or plutonium-239) stage of a thermonuclear weapon when triggered would create the enormously high temperatures and pressures required for the secondary stage of the weapon – the fusion stage – to be set off. Unfortunately, tritium is a radioisotope with a half-life of 12.5 years, so every 12 or so years the potential explosive power of the U.S. thermonuclear weapons arsenal was diminished by about 50%, and the weapons had to be recharged with fresh tritium. This was not a simple procedure considering the thousands of nuclear bombs and warheads spread out over the U.S. that required this attention, as well as the slow production rate of fresh tritium in the Savannah River nuclear reactor.
Towards the end of the cold war, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. developed a solution to this problem: Instead of deploying deuterium and tritium as the fusion isotopes in thermonuclear bombs and warheads, the compound lithium-6-deuteride was used instead. Lithium-6 has the property of avidly absorbing neutrons generated by the primary fission stage of a thermonuclear weapon. After doing so, lithium-6 disintegrates producing the isotope tritium. Therefore, the supply of deuterium and tritium for the subsequent fusion reaction was made immediately available but only when needed at the moment the initial fission stage of the weapon was triggered. This was a big step forward in the design of thermonuclear weapons, and there is some credible evidence that in the Soviet Union’s defense establishment the code name for tritium-6-deuteride was Red Mercury.
Pseudoscientific theories have abounded as to the utility of Red Mercury for weapons of mass destruction. One totally baseless theory asserts that with the catalytic presence of Red Mercury, the enrichment of natural uranium to weapons-grade uranium-235 can occur at a much faster rate than with the more conventional centrifuge technology. Another theory claims that if Red Mercury is subjected to very high pressures, it releases extraordinarily large amounts of heat, and could, therefore, replace the initial fission stage of a thermonuclear weapon by triggering the secondary fusion stage of the thermonuclear reaction. Yet another theory claims that if Red Mercury is irradiated for extensive periods of time in a nuclear reactor, radiation is absorbed (according to some unknown scientific principle) by the Red Mercury molecules. Then, if subjected to mechanical shockwaves, the absorbed energy in the Red Mercury is released and can either function as an independent weapon, or can replace the initial fission stage of a thermonuclear weapon, resulting in a physically much more compact and safe device prior to its detonation. However, there is absolutely no scientific support for Red Mercury having any of the properties described above. On a slightly humorous point, many centuries ago, mercury was the most common element used by alchemists to create "new" elements.
The only evidence of world powers being involved in any way with Red Mercury is that possibly toward the end of the cold war, the Soviet Union coined Red Mercury as a code word for lithium-6-deuteride, the fusion fuel for modern thermonuclear weapons.
There is absolutely no scientific support to Red Mercury having any role either in the accelerated enrichment of uranium or in the construction of thermonuclear weapons. Consequently, Red Mercury is probably one of the more audacious international hoaxes perpetrated to date. ISIS, nevertheless, has believed this hoax and has attempted to scare the rest of the world into believing that they have developed, or are in the process of developing, a “doomsday weapon of mass destruction” based on the totally fabricated properties of Red Mercury. Perhaps the idea of Red Mercury and its ostensibly "awesome" properties is a modern version of alchemy! But in a sense the world should be grateful that due to ISIS’s continuing naïve belief in the Red Mercury hoax, it has squandered enormous amounts of its financial resources to buy up supplies of Red Mercury from international con men.
Parenthetically, one wonders where ISIS has decided to dump all the toasters, sewing machines, and other domestic appliances after the Red Mercury (that supposedly was "hidden" inside such appliances) had been removed that it had spent millions of dollars purchasing. Well, see below...
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