Traces of thermate at the WTC
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The story...

Professor Steven Jones' examination of WTC steel has shown the presence of thermate-signature chemical elements. Could this be "Finally the proof: Thermate used to destroy WTC"?

Our take...

This claim arose from the tests Professor Jones performed on a "WTC dust sample" and "previously molten-metal samples". He reports finding chemicals that are associated with thermate, and suggests:

We (3 physicists and a geologist) have conducted Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS), also X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) and Electron Microprobe analyses on residue samples from the scene.

We identify predominately iron, with very little chromium, along with uncommon chemical elements in abundance such as fluorine and manganese. Aluminum and sulfur are present (expected from thermate reactions).

1,3 Diphenylpropane was observed in dust, and interesting bit of possibly corroborative evidence.

The results, coupled with visual evidence at the scene such as the flowing yellow-hot liquid metal still red after falling about 500 feet (150 m, discussed earlier), provide compelling evidence that thermite reaction compounds (aluminothermics) were used, meaning thermite was deliberately placed in both WTC Towers and WTC 7.
Journal of 911 Studies Source

How reasonable is this conclusion? Let's consider the issues.

1. Where did the samples come from?

Jones' analysis is only relevant if his samples really can tell us something about conditions on 9/11. Fortunately he does tell us a little about where they came from:

The provenience of the WTC dust sample is an apartment at 113 Cedar Street in New York City, NY.

A monument constructed primarily from structural steel from the WTC Towers located at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, is the source of previously-molten metal samples...

The samples were sent directly to Prof. Jones at BYU, and inspected by him and Dr. Jeffrey Farrer together, and analyzed by the BYU group.

The line that "the samples were sent directly to Prof. Jones at BYU" is of concern, as it suggests an uncertain chain of custody. How sure can we be that Professor Jones' correspondent is accurately representing the origin of the samples? This need not be a hoax, just a simple error, and the entire basis of the study is destroyed.

There's a further problem in the comment that the metal samples came from a monument constructed "primarily" from WTC steel. Did some of it come from elsewhere, then? A quick search online revealed this:

Air Force ROTC cadets in the 536 Detachment salute World Trade Center beams as the National Anthem is played on Sept. 11, 2006, during a memorial ceremony at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. Clarkson alumnus Michael Bielawa, who supervised cleanup efforts at ground zero, donated three pieces of structural steel to the school, two of which were identified as part of the 55th floor of the south tower

It's good to get such solid information on two of the structural steel pieces, but not so great that the third is unidentified. Still, if Jones' correspondent is correct and the sample came from this steel, then it seems likely that it really is from the towers.

2. How pure are the samples?

Establishing the origin of the samples is just the start. The next point to consider is the way they may have been treated since 9/11, and whether that might have affected the results.

In terms of the dust sample, for instance, how sure can we be that it reflects the dust from 9/11 and the days afterwards? How confident can we be that it's not been contaminated in some way?

The metal samples face similar questions. Were they cut during the cleanup process, or otherwise treated in any way that could cause contamination? How were they kept afterwards?

The only answer we've seen up to the time of writing (November 2006) is this, claiming that thermite wasn't used during the cleanup process.

Researcher Michael Berger checked with a number of steel-cutters and workers at Ground Zero. They reported that oxy-acetylene torches were used to cut the steel members -- Not thermite

Also, reacting thermite ejects globs of molten white/orange-hot iron – would cause VERY dangerous burns! Therefore, thermite was not used in clean-up.

Otherwise we're left guessing. And in fairness that's no surprise, as these questions aren't easy to answer with any degree of certainty. So let's just assume that we'll accept the samples as reasonably pure, at least for the moment, and look at what's been discovered.

3. Was there enough thermite/thermate to leave detectable traces?

 Professor Jones estimates the total amount of explosives required for the WTC here:

Phone interview with demolition expert, Brent Blanchard, 10 Feb 2006...

To bring down Southwark Towers, about 300 pounds of shaped charges (RDX) would be sufficient, he said.

(Then for a WTC Tower, about 1000 pounds of explosives would be sufficient. This would only require an estimated 10 men [foreigners?] to install the cutter charges, mostly in the central core/elevator shaft areas.)

Picking 1,000 pounds as a figure is convenient if you’re hoping to prove how easy it might be to plant explosives, for instance, but it does pose a problem when it comes to detecting traces later. Professor Jones suggests that Sulfur is typically only 2% of thermate by weight, for instance (although he says more can be added). That’s 20 pounds of sulfur per tower, let’s say 60 pounds for towers 1, 2, and 7, which is then mixed with this:

With the collapse of New York City's two World Trade Center (WTC) towers on Sept. 11, 2001, more than 1 million tons of dust enveloped lower Manhattan.

We’ve no idea how they calculated “1 million tons” here, it seems way to high, but even if we divide that by 10 it’s still going to swamp any thermate residue. Especially when you consider the next point.

4. Were there other sources for these chemicals?

Jones makes much of finding "uncommon chemical elements in abundance", however we can't help but wonder why this is any surprise. The destruction of more than 250 floors of office building, and subsequent fires burning for months might surely be expected to produce many different chemicals. And sure enough, that’s exactly what it did. 

A USGS survey, for instance, listed the following major elements that it discovered in samples of WTC dust: Silicon, Calcium, Magnesium, Sulfur, Iron, Aluminum, Carbon (organic and carbonate), Sodium, Potassium, Titanium, Manganese, and Phosphorus. Four of these are flagged by Professor Jones as possible indicators for thermate (Sulfur, Potassium, Titanium, Manganese), yet the authors of this study don’t seem to require any special explanations for them at all.

The total element compositions of the dust samples reflect the chemical makeup of materials such as: glass fibers (containing silicon, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and other elements); gypsum (containing calcium and sulfate); concrete and aggregate (containing calcium and aluminum hydroxides, and a variety of silicate minerals containing silicon, calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium); particles rich in iron, aluminum, titanium, and other metals that might be used in building construction; and particles of other components, such as computers, etc. Organic carbon in the dusts is most likely from paper, wallboard binder, and other organic materials.

The trace metal compositions of the dust and girder coatings likely reflect contributions of material from a wide variety of sources. Possibilities include metals that might be found as pigments in paints (such as titanium, molybdenum, lead, and iron), or metals that occur as traces in, or as major components of, wallboard, concrete, aggregate, copper piping, electrical wiring, and computer equipment. Further detailed SEM studies of dust and beam coating samples are needed to develop a better understanding of the residences of metals in the samples. A detailed review of the materials used in construction, and the elemental composition of materials commonly found in office buildings would also be useful to understand more completely the potential sources and compositions of the materials in the dusts.

And another takes a similar approach:

The levels of many of the elements are consistent with their presence in building materials, including chromium, magnesium, manganese, aluminum, and barium. The very high levels of titanium (> 0.1%) were due to their presence in paint, especially white paint. The lead levels are elevated due to the use of lead-based paint on metallic surfaces during construction of the building. The detected lead dust concentrations were lower than would be found outdoors in older cities affected by tailpipe emissions from leaded gasoline...

Neither study involved analysing metal samples, so can’t be directly compared with that part of Professor Jones research, but still, this does illustrate that many of these elements aren’t as uncommon as might be suggested. And is seems there are other possible sources at the WTC site.

5. Problems with specific claims

a) Professor Jones tells us that a metal low in chromium, with “abundant manganese” rules out the possibility of it being structural steel. Checking the steel specifications for the time tells us otherwise, though.

b) Sulfidised metal reported by FEMA, and sulfur recorded in Professor Jones’ own analyses are supposed to indicate the use of thermate. Take a closer look, however, and these claims don’t look so convincing.

c) Professor Jones explains that thermite is the only explanation he’s found for Fluorine traces in his WTC samples. But maybe it’s found in other places, too.

d) Potassium is sometimes connected with thermite, but does that really mean its presence in Professor Jones’ samples has no other explanation? No, it seems there were other potential sources at the WTC site.

e) Zinc was similarly found in significant quantities at Ground Zero. More here.

f) Titanium is another element that could be a thermite marker. Or it might have been found at the WTC through its use in paint, paper, and other common sources.

g) And then there’s the molecule 1,3-diphenlypropane (1,3-DPP), supposedly a possible indicator of sol-gel thermite. But what’s the other possible explanation that doesn’t make it into Professor Jones’ paper?

6. Do the chemicals discovered provide a complete thermite signature?

So far the argument seems to be that chemicals A, B, C and D are sometimes associated with thermite; Professor Jones has found them in his samples; therefore, in conjunction with other evidence (video of streams of metal from the WTC etc) this shows thermite may have been used at the World Trade Center. Although this sounds plausible at first, it’s deficient in some important areas.

First, there’s very little information about how the levels of each chemical relate to a typical thermate mix, or what you might expect to find in a post-reaction thermate residue. For example, Professor Jones reports that his “previously molten metal” sample “has (in spots) Aluminum (Al, possibly Al203) Sulfur (S) and Potassium”, along with “abundant Manganese”. Despite thermate having far more aluminum than sulfur, though, Jones sample seems to show more sulfur than aluminum. Perhaps we’re misreading that, maybe the aluminum is consumed in the reaction while most sulfur survives: we don’t know. But it seems to us that figuring out what the relative levels of these elements ought to be, after a thermite reaction, would be useful in proving (or disproving) the theory.

And second, there are other elements that are left out almost entirely. Professor Jones finds Sulfur on his metal samples, for instance, but doesn’t report any Barium Nitrate, even though that’s a much more significant part of the thermate mix. If that cannot be satisfactorily explained, then surely that means no thermate, at least of the type Professor Jones is describing? Read more on this page.


It seems we can’t be completely sure that these samples are from the WTC, and there’s no way to accurately assess whether they might have been contaminated. 

The elements that Professor Jones reports finding have already been discovered by other WTC dust surveys, who for the most part don’t seem surprised by their presence. It seems likely that, in all cases, there are other WTC sources that can deliver far more of these elements than you would ever see from thermite/ thermate. 

There’s also no clear evidence that the suspect elements are available in proportions that match what you’d expect from a thermite/ thermate reaction. And some products you might imagine would be produced, aren’t reported at all.

Proof of thermite/ thermate, then? No. Just assumptions, and avoidance of alternative explanations for the presence of these elements. That’s just fine when you’re telling an audience what they want to believe, but convincing the rest of the world is going to take considerably more evidence than is displayed here.

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