New York City activist

January 3, 2008

He oughta know better: Mark Roberts and the iron spherules

On Mark Roberts’s site, a page titled They oughta know better: critiques of the inept work, absurd claims, and deceitful practices of Richard Gage, David Ray Griffin, Jim Hoffman, Steven E. Jones, Gordon Ross, Kevin Ryan, and others includes the following claim by Mark Roberts:

The “mysterious” iron spheres in WTC dust that are cited by Jones as possible evidence of thermite or thermate use, are in fact expected to form in a hot office fire.

In support of this claim, Roberts cites the very interesting paper WTC Dust Signature Report: Composition and Morphology: Summary Report, Prepared for: Deutsche Bank (PDF), prepared by the RJ Lee Group, available on an archived version of the website of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. But, as we shall see, this report does not actually support Roberts’s claim at all.

(P.S.: After I notified Roberts about this post, he changed the wording on his website. Below, I’ll leave my reply to the original wording intact, and then I’ll reply to the revised version in a P.S.)

The RJ Lee Group report was prepared as part of “Damage Assessment” of the Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street. (A one-storey front extension of the Deutsche Bank building was smashed by falling debris from WTC 2. The rest of the building was irreparably damaged but remained standing, and is now still in process of being slowly demolished floor by floor.)

Mark Roberts quotes this report as saying:

Considering the high temperatures reached during the destruction of the WTC, the following three types of combustion products would be expected to be present in WTC Dust. These products are:

• Vesicular carbonaceous particles primarily from plastics
• Iron-rich spheres from iron-bearing building components or contents
• High temperature aluminosilicate from building materials

…In addition to the spherical iron and aluminosilicate particles, a variety of heavy metal particles including lead, cadmium, vanadium, yttrium, arsenic, bismuth, and barium particles were produced by the pulverizing, melting and/or combustion of the host materials such as solder, computer screens, and paint during the WTC Event.

However, the report doesn’t say that iron-rich spheres are typical of “hot office fires” in general. About office fires in general, the report says only the following:

The collapse of a major building can produce significant quantities of dust and debris comprised of the construction materials and the contents of the building. Fires in commercial office buildings can produce combustion products including soot, partially combusted aerosolized particles and organic vapors. The amounts and portions of the various products of combustion will depend upon the source materials, the combustion temperatures, the availability of oxygen and other oxidants, the duration of the fires, and other factors.

Far from claiming that the WTC dust is typical of “hot office fires” in general, the report says:

The WTC disaster uniquely combined several cataclysmic destructive processes in a single event.

Indeed, the whole point of the report depends on the WTC dust being unique:

The distinctive composition, solid phases, and unique morphological features have allowed for the development of a “WTC Dust Signature”: dust containing particles that, when occurring together, can be considered to act as identifying source tracers. The WTC Dust Signature can be compared with dusts of unknown provenance using conventional source apportionment methodologies, forensic tags derived from microscopic observations, or statistical analysis. These techniques are a scientifically recognized methodology used to determine source impact by comparing dust from an unknown source to reference source signatures. In this case, the dust of unknown origin can be compared to the WTC Dust Signature to determine what component or fraction of the material is the result of the WTC Event.

To evaluate the validity of the WTC Dust Signature as a unique identifier, dust samples were collected from a number of representative office buildings, “Background Buildings”, in typical urban locations including Midtown Manhattan, New York City, NY, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA, and Florham Park, NJ. See RJ Lee Group “Background Levels in Buildings” report. Additionally, dust samples collected from the New York City area collected and analyzed prior to 9/11/2001 were reevaluated. The pre-WTC Event samples, collected in the spring of 2000, included materials from both the interiors of the World Trade Center Towers as well as exterior samples, taken in close proximity to the Towers. The Background Building samples and the pre-WTC Event samples were compared to known WTC Dust for the forensic evaluation, using the source apportionment methodologies to determine the extent of the WTC Dust impact.

So, the report certainly does not claim or imply that the WTC dust is typical of “a hot office fire” in general. The report does not specify how the WTC dust is either similar to or different from dust from other “hot office fires.”

The report does say that the iron-rich spherules are one of the factors distinguishing WTC dust from ordinary everyday urban dust found in offices under normal conditions:

The conflagration activated processes that caused materials to form into spherical particles such as metals (e.g., Fe, Zn, Pb) and spherical or vesicular silicates or fly ash. The heat generated during the WTC Event caused some plastics to form residual vesicular carbonaceous particles, and paints to form residual spherical particles. Some metals, plastics and other materials were vaporized thus producing new chemicals that were deposited onto the surfaces of solid particulate matter, such as asbestos, quartz, and mineral wool. These dust and heat-processed constituents are not typically found associated with typical office building environments.

About the iron-rich spherules, the report also says:

In addition to the vesicular carbon components, the high heat exposure of the WTC Dust has also created other morphologically specific varieties of particulate matter including spherical metallic, vesicular siliceous and spherical fly ash components. These types of particles are classic examples of high temperature or combustion by-products and are generally absent in typical office dust.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t say what specific temperature range it is talking about when it speaks of high temperatures. Nor does it say where these “classic examples of high temperature” are typically found. Mark Roberts assumes that the report must be referring to “a hot office fire,” but I think it’s more likely referring to other, hotter kinds of combustion, e.g. industrial furnaces, or possibly very hot incinerators. We’ll soon see why the latter possibilities are more plausible.

Although the report doesn’t mention specific temperatures or their specific “classic” sources, the report does say:

Various metals (most notably iron and lead) were melted during the WTC Event, producing spherical metallic particles. Exposure of phases to high heat results in the formation of spherical particles due to surface tension. Figure 21 and Figure 22 show a spherical iron particle resulting from the melting of iron (or steel).

Note that the report attributes the spherules to the melting of iron or steel.

In other words, the report affirms one of the very points which Roberts was apparently trying to refute by citing this report.

Evidently the report assumes that the fires during the “WTC Event” got hot enough to melt steel. But a typical office fire is certainly not hot enough to melt steel. Steel melts at approximately 1500 degrees C, whereas even a very intense office fire is unlikely to get much hotter than 800 degrees C. Did any of the fires in the WTC reach 1500 degrees C? If so, how? The report implies that they did, but doesn’t say how.

One might ask: Could the report be talking about steel that was melted in the smoldering pile fires, rather than in the WTC fires themselves? Not likely. For one thing, although the report doesn’t define exactly what it does and does not mean by “the WTC Event,” it seems most reasonable to assume that that that term refers to the jet crashes, the subsequent building fires, and then the collapses. More importantly, if indeed the pile fires got hot enough to melt steel, they would most likely have gotten that hot only because they were enclosed enough to prevent heat from escaping. If heat wasn’t escaping, then probebly not very much dust was escaping either – certainly not anywhere near as much dust as was spewed during the collapses.

So, the mystery of the “‘mysterious’ iron spheres” remains unsolved.

One might ask why the authors of the report weren’t curious about this anomaly, if indeed it is an anomaly. Most likely, the authors weren’t concerned about this issue because they were more interested in developing a unique “WTC Dust Signature” than they were in the details of how the unique dust was so uniquely generated. Furthermore, their client, Deutsche Bank, was probably concerned about insurance and liability issues, which would be affected more by environmental hazards such as asbestos and mercury than by molten iron.

For more about Steven Jones’s thermite hypothesis, see the section Thermite (or Thermate) – good so far, though not conclusive in my post Demolition of WTC: Let’s not overstate the case, please.

P.S.: Mark Roberts emailed me the following and gave me permission to quote it:

That’s a good point. I’ll change the wording to indicate that the iron spherules were expected to have been produced by the WTC fires. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

This still begs the question of why iron spherules would have been expected in the WTC fires. The report has made an implied claim that the fires were hot enough to melt (not merely weaken) steel. But how is that possible?

Not sure that was worth a whole blog post, though: things slow around there? 🙂

It was worth an entire blog post because it deals with one of the strongest pieces of evidence, so far, for the possible use of an incendiary such as thermite. The report you’ve cited has confirmed both (1) the presence of the spherules in sufficient quantity to be considered an identifying feature of the “WTC Dust signature” and (2) the implication that molten steel or iron was somehow produced by the “WTC Event.”

P.S., 2/3/2008: I’ve been told, elsewhere, that the issues discussed by Apollo20 (Frank Greening) and “Crazy Chainsaw” in this JREF thread are addressed in Extremely high temperatures during the World Trade Center destruction (PDF) by Steven E. Jones, Jeffrey Farrer, Gregory S. Jenkins, Frank Legge, James Gourley, Kevin Ryan, Daniel Farnsworth, and Crockett Grabbe, Journal of 9/11 Studies, Volume 19 – January 2008. (For a quick intro, see also this page on 9/11 blogger.) I’ll have to look at this later. In the meantime, I would be interested to see comments from others.

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20 Comments »

  1. >>Note that the report attributes the spherules to the melting of iron or steel. In other words, the report affirms one of the very points which Roberts was apparently trying to refute by citing this report. . . . Could the report be talking about steel that was melted in the smoldering pile fires, rather than in the WTC fires themselves? Not likely.

    Great points! And good write-up.

    Comment by reader21 — January 3, 2008 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  2. I would direct you to this thread.

    http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=102149

    Read especially the posts of Crazy Chainsaw and Apollo20 (Frank Greening). Crazy Chainsaw has actually done all the chemical experiments himself, while Greening continues to share the knowledge.

    Comment by ref1 — January 4, 2008 @ 6:29 am | Reply

  3. At some point in the not too distant future, I should call Steven Jones’s attention to that thread and get his feedback. Not right now, though.

    (P.S., 2/3/2007: See the P.S. I just now added to the bottom of my post, above.)

    Comment by Diane — January 4, 2008 @ 11:44 pm | Reply

  4. (This post is an edited pingback.)

    Pingback by My decision about Ron Wieck’s show « New York City activist — January 31, 2008 @ 2:42 am | Reply

  5. To the layman, the issue of the spherules is baffling. There are, however, some points which can be looked at.

    The first issue relates to whether the substances present were unique to thermite. That appears not to be the case. There is no substance found that one would not expect to find in vast buildings such as the WTC.

    The second issue relates to whether the particular spherules found clearly indicate the presence of thermite, and that the thermite was used to destroy the building’s structure. This is a highly technical matter. While Professor Jones believes that the presence of the spherules undoubtedly indicates thermite as used for demolition, others – equally qualified – disagree.

    On the third issue, however, we are able to form a judgement. Is it plausible that the two towers be prepared for demolition using thermite, in some hitherto unknown way, without the users of the building seeing any sign of it. The thermite would remain unaffected by the fires in the building, until it was ignited in order to cause the collapse, without any visible signs to the thousands of observers. Any layman can make a judgement on that.

    Comment by westprog99 — January 31, 2008 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  6. westprog99 wrote:

    The first issue relates to whether the substances present were unique to thermite. That appears not to be the case. There is no substance found that one would not expect to find in vast buildings such as the WTC.

    Thermite itself is basically just powdered aluminum plus iron rust. Aluminium and iron rust are, of course, both very common substances.

    The second issue relates to whether the particular spherules found clearly indicate the presence of thermite, and that the thermite was used to destroy the building’s structure. This is a highly technical matter. While Professor Jones believes that the presence of the spherules undoubtedly indicates thermite as used for demolition, others – equally qualified – disagree.

    Correct, which is why I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude on this question.

    I’ve seen claims in the JREF forum that iron spherules can form at temperatures lower than the melting point of iron. Offhand this claim looks very strange to me. If iron were being formed (from iron oxide) at temperatures lower than the melting point of iron, why would the iron be spherical in that case? Seems to me it would more likely take random shapes. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how a sphere could form from a droplet of molten iron flying through the air, given the droplet’s surface tension.

    Still, I’m not a chemist, so I could be wrong about the above. But I do wonder how iron formed in chemical reactions at temperatures lower than the melting point of iron could end up forming spheres rather than other shapes.

    On the third issue, however, we are able to form a judgement. Is it plausible that the two towers be prepared for demolition using thermite, in some hitherto unknown way, without the users of the building seeing any sign of it.

    If planted in the core, this would be easy. It could easily be disguised as elevator maintenance. The perimeter walls would be harder to access, except that the spandrels could perhaps be accessed via crawlspaces (if indeed there were crawlspaces). Other access to perimeter columns would have needed to take place in tenants’ offices, which is indeed a problem, but perhaps it could have been disguised as electrical work or some other kind of maintenance that requires drilling holes in walls. So a real investigation would need to determine what kinds of maintenance work (or alleged maintenance) work were done in the buildings in the months leading up to 9/11.

    The thermite would remain unaffected by the fires in the building, until it was ignited in order to cause the collapse,

    Whether that’s possible and, if so, how, is a technical question.

    without any visible signs to the thousands of observers.

    Any witnesses to the latter inside the building would not have escaped in time to survive. Outside the building, well, there was that mysterious bright yellow liquid pouring from the 82nd floor of WTC 2. Of course, we can’t know for sure what that was.

    Comment by Diane — January 31, 2008 @ 9:21 pm | Reply

  7. (This comment is an edited pingback.)

    Further comments on the question of how the perpetrators could have gotten away with planting thermite, etc., should be posted in response to the post linked below, not in response to this post here about the spherules. Further comments here on this page should be confined to the topic of the spherules.

    – Diane

    Pingback by Hiding the planting of incendiaries, explosives, or whatever: Response to a common a priori objection « New York City activist — March 6, 2008 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  8. Metal spheres in the dust should be expected in such a collapse and are not unequivocal evidence that cutting charges were used to cause it. Extremely high temperatures could have been created in sparks caused by impact and friction between collapsing columns and concrete, and when steel reinforcements where pulled out of concrete pads. I have collected metallic microspheres formed from molten steel created by burning, incandescent, white hot sparks created by a grinding wheel. It seems to me that the metallic spheres in the dust could actually be evidence that behind the dust of the collapse wave, there was a firestorm of sparks. R.

    Comment by crankydad — April 15, 2008 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

  9. Microscopic lead particles in the dust are another story. I don’t think you can make a spark with lead. Their orgin is suggested by their association with rock wool fibres in the dust. When the Twin Towers were built, rock wool insulation was made from lead slag. This is the crust that floats to the top of crucibles of molten lead during refining. Lead particles are common in rock wool from years before the early 1970’s, and it is hazardous to remove such insulation because of it. This is not evidence that high temperatures occured during the collapse.

    Comment by crankydad — April 15, 2008 @ 9:10 pm | Reply

  10. The idea that the iron-rich spheres could have been caused by friction is interesting. I’ll have to look into that possibility.

    Comment by Diane — April 16, 2008 @ 11:09 am | Reply

  11. Because spark generated molten steel droplets were ejected through a cloud of cement and drywall dust, some of the droplets probably have collided with the dust and been contaminated with aluminum and other materials.

    The paper by Jones et al highlights a vesicular alumino-silicate particle found in the dust. Earlier in this thread, fly ash was also mentioned as being detected in the dust. This is evidence that these materials were subjected to extremely high temperatures at some time, but not necessarily on 9/11. For example, the floors of the buildings were made with thousands of tons of light weight concrete. Light weight concrete is made by replacing the normal gravel or sand component with ground pumice, or even fly-ash. Pumice is vesicular volcanic rock. We should therefore expect to find it in the dust of the WTC. Pumice is an alumino-silicate rock with some other components such as calcium and magnesium, usually. The composition depends on what volcano it came from. R. O.

    Comment by crankydad — April 16, 2008 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  12. Have you considered writing a letter to the Journal of 9/11 Studies? I would suggest that you do so.

    Comment by Diane — April 16, 2008 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  13. I submitted a paper for the journal, commenting on their analyis of the dust and suggesting the spark origin, complete with photographs of sparks and the microspheres they created, but it was rejected. They have given me the chance to resubmit, but I haven’t had the time. Here is an excerpt with reviewers comment that is particulary revealing:

    “However, strictly speaking, their data prove only that some of the materials found in the WTC dust samples had been exposed to extremely high temperatures at some time prior to their collection, but not necessarily at the time of the collapse.
    Some of the materials said to be evidence of high temperature exposure during the collapse might simply be the pulverized remains of materials were manufactured at extremely high temperatures, decades before the buildings collapsed.” “A thorough and objective analysis would have searched for sources of materials found in the dust that might have been exposed to extreme heat prior to the collapse, assessed their significance and reported them. They were not difficult to find. Without any special qualifications, I found several in an evening’s internet research. By not taking this elementary step Jones et al. were misled by the abundance of previously heat-exposed materials [In fact, as one of the authors, I can say I did take that step – so your statement is presumptive .]”

    I was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it was refused. They knew that this was a possibility but decided not to mention it, either because they didn’t properly research it, or because it severely weakens the case they were trying to prove. Either alternative says something about their objectivity.

    Randall.

    Comment by crankydad — April 16, 2008 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  14. By the way, the Journal of 9/11 Studies is co-edited by Dr. Jones and two of the other co-authors of the paper on extreme temperatures and dust. Getting that paper published in the J. of 9/11 Studies is not like getting it published in an independent scientific journal. It means nothing.

    Comment by crankydad — April 18, 2008 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

  15. I would urge you to try re-submitting your paper, and, if it’s rejected again, then post it on a website of your own.

    Supposedly the high-temperature paper ahs been accepted by a mainstream journal (whose name has not been revealed yet) as well as the Journal of 9/11 Studies. We shall see.

    Comment by Diane — April 18, 2008 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

  16. I have resubmitted my dust paper to the J. of 911 Studies, after revising it. Thanks for the encouragement. Its title is: “Reassessing dust evidence for extremely high temperatures during WTC collapse”.

    Randall.

    Comment by crankydad — April 25, 2008 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  17. The Journal of 911 Studies has had the revised paper I submitted to them for 4 months now. I had to ask them a few weeks ago if they were still considering it, and apparently they still were. I haven’t checked today, but as of last week, it still hadn’t been published. The Journal is supposed to facilitate scholarly exchange. One wonders how quickly my paper might have appeared if it had agreed with the case they were trying to establish.

    Comment by crankydad — August 26, 2008 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

  18. The Journal of 9/11 Studies is now defunct. The editors have decided that the papers they have published so far have made such a clear case against the official story that there is no need to publish anything more. Aparently, that includes my paper, which contradicts or at least casts reasonable and considerable doubt on their explanation of the origins of metallic microspheres and volcanic ash in the dust of the twin towers.

    Comment by crankydad — September 23, 2008 @ 8:31 pm | Reply

  19. > The editors have decided that the papers they have published so far have made such a clear case against the official story that there is no need to publish anything more.

    Did they actually phrase it that way? That’s pretty bad, if they did use a formulation. Coming on the heels of the NIST report on Building 7, one would expect them to find more to do. Releasing such a statement at this time is tantamount to acknowledging the lack of any real case.

    Comment by patricksmcnally — September 24, 2008 @ 7:41 pm | Reply

  20. This is what they wrote: “It is now our belief that the case for falsity of the official explanation is so well established and demonstrated by papers in this Journal that there is little to be gained from accepting more papers here. Instead we encourage all potential contributors to prepare papers suitable for the more established journals in which scientists might more readily place their trust.”

    We are left to wonder why scientists have trouble placing their trust in the Journal of 9/11 Studies.

    Comment by crankydad — September 26, 2008 @ 2:59 pm | Reply


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