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Boffins 'cage the demon' of white phosphorus

Moleculo-prison could neutralise hellfire weapon

Bigger "cages" might lock up chemical-warfare agents too

As the boffins put it on their webpage:

Within the cage, ordinarily pyrophoric P4 molecules become air-stable! ... The cage does not stabilize its guest through hermetic exclusion of oxygen, but rather through a constrictive mechanism. The reaction of O2 with P4 would proceed through a transition state too large for the cage's cavity.

"It is foreseeable that our technique might be used to clean up a white phosphorous spill, either as part of an industrial accident or in a war zone," says Dr Nitschke. "In addition to its ability to inflict grievous harm while burning, white phosphorous is very toxic and poses a major environmental hazard."

The chemicals required to make the cage are apparently "inexpensive". The trick might also be used as a means of handling and transporting phosphorus in industry, as well as cleaning up spills. According to the chemists one can easily release the demon from its cage as desired, by adding benzene.

Apart from phosphorus, the Cambridge boffins are now working on new cube and dodecahedron cages which could hold bigger molecules. They think these could be used to deliver chemical "payloads" such as drugs or fragrances, which would be released from the cages by a suitable signal compound. Dr Nitschke also believes that the new, larger cages could be used to clean up or transport other harmful molecules such as chemical weapons.

Full-on boffinry detail is published in Science magazine (subscription required) today. ®


*The Royal Navy has responsibility for all explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) tasks below the high-water mark around the UK's coasts. Teams of mine-clearance divers based at Plymouth, Portsmouth and Faslane deal with these jobs among other things. Your correspondent commanded the Plymouth team from 2001 to 2004.

Munitions found above the high-water mark are usually (but not exclusively) an Army responsibility. It is rumoured that teams from both services, faced with a tiresome or inconveniently-timed task, have been known to move a piece of ordnance up or down the beach to the other side of the high-tide line in order to hand the problem off to someone else.

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