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and Morphology: Summary Report, Prepared for: Deutsche Bank (PDF), prepared by the RJ Lee Group, available on an archived version of the website of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.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.