Chlorine Gas: The Grandfather of all Chemical Weapons

Although many people like to believe that something as evil and heinous as chemical weapons were invented by super secret military instillations or by communists, the origin of chemical weapons is even more surprising. Is it believable that the father of chemical warfare is actually responsible for most of the people on this planet?

Fritz Haber was a controversial chemist who lived in Germany from 1868 to 1934. The creator of one of the most influential and significant discoveries of the 20th century, Fritz Haber created the Haber-Bosch Process in 1909, which allowed for the creation of ammonia.

How the Haber Bosch Process Produces Ammonia

How the Haber Bosch Process Produces Ammonia

This lead to a dramatic increase in fertilizer and subsequently food production, allowing for the planet to support the seven billion people today. The discovery prompted him to receive the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work and launched him to international acclaim. However Haber, not satisfied with his wonderful service to humanity, opted for a darker path and became the lead supervisor of Germany’s poison gas program during World War I. Ammonia as it turns out was crucial to produce nitrates and explosives and Haber, himself, proposed the militarized use of chlorine gas as a weapon, first successfully used in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.

Chlorine Gas Attack during the 2nd Battle of Ypres in WWI

Chlorine Gas Attack during the 2nd Battle of Ypres in WWI

Chlorine gas was the first chemical agent used to bring about large-scale death and destruction in the history of warfare, leading people to create even more monstrous and atrocious chemical weapons in order to make this system of murder all the more effective. Although Chemistry is responsible for the quality of the food we eat, the medicine we use, and even how we think and act, it is important to note that not everything is sunshine and rainbows and chemistry can be used for much malice in the wrong hands.

Chlorine is usually found in the form of sodium chloride, or table salt, which is perfectly benign, but in its diatomic form it is an extremely poisonous. It is a greenish yellow gas at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, and consists of two chlorine atoms single bonded together, forming Cl2.

Ball and Stick Model of Diatomic Chlorine

Ball and Stick Model of Diatomic Chlorine

It is the second lightest halogen gas, meaning that it is extremely electronegative, reacting with many different elements and producing a wide variety of compounds. These compounds range from calcium chloride, which can be used to melt snow on the sidewalk, to disulfur dichloride, which is used in thevulcanization of rubber. Chlorine gas has a molar mass of 70.90g/mol, meaning that it is about 2.5 times heavier than air, primarily composed of nitrogen and oxygen having molar masses of 28.02g/mol and 32.00g/mol respectively. Sending an electric current through an aqueous sodium chloride solution can easily produce this gas, a process called electrolysis.

Simple view of electrolysis producing chlorine gas

Simple view of electrolysis producing chlorine gas

But how does this incredibly deadly chemical compound actually work? Since chlorine is incredibly reactive, when breathed in it will react with the water in the lungs to create hydrochloric acid or HCl. The HCl would corrode the tissue in the lungs, causing them to fill up with fluid, drowning the individual. Because of its large mass, it would just settle in the trenches when released, waiting to strike. It was such a gruesome way to die, Wilfred Owen, a famous poet who served in the British army during WWI, described the horrifying effects in his famous poem. The reason this happens is because Chlorine is a very strong oxidizer, or an element that accepts electrons from other compounds in a redox reaction. According to theCDC, Chlorine can also cause irritation in the eyes, throat and skin, watery eyes, and wheezing, reacting with the water in these areas.

A graphic detailing a list of symptoms that may arise from an exposure to chlorine gas

A graphic detailing a list of symptoms that may arise from an exposure to chlorine gas

Aside from its extremely potent nature chlorine has many important applications and is still produced today. Chlorine is used as a disinfectant in swimming pools and has many functions in producing consumer goods, like plastics, dyes and pharmaceuticals. It is even used in sucralose or Splenda, an artificial sweeter said to be 600 times sweeter than sucrose, or table sugar.

Sucralose, more commonly known as Splenda.  The green presents chlorine

Sucralose, more commonly known as Splenda. The green presents chlorine

As a result chlorine is still mass-produced, the amount increasing as more uses are discovered. This dilemma serves to show that although chlorine gas, like many other compounds, is incredibly dangerous and has been used to kill people in the past, it can be extremely useful to society. Even compounds that are normally viewed as being extremely important to society, like ammonia, can be used for nefarious purposes. In the end, chemistry and its applications are just tools that can be used to solve momentous problems, or create new ones. It all depends on how these discoveries are used.


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