Ammonium nitrate at the origin of many explosions, including that of Beirut

Ammonium nitrate is mainly used as a nitrogen fertilizer for leafy legume crops, indicates the Chemical Society of France.

This type of fertilizer, which comes in the form of white granules, is used all over the world for better yields and is considered indispensable by many farmers.

Lebanon is known to be a big consumer of fertilizers: with 330 kilos per hectare, the country uses twice as much as the world average, noted in February the United Nations organization for food and agriculture (FAO ).

Ammonium nitrate is also used in the manufacture of explosives. Mixed with TNT (trinitrotoluene) or pentrite, it is used in construction, mines and quarries, specifies the Chemical Society of France.

Other minor uses exist for this chemical, notably as a propellant in the aerospace industry for its oxidizing properties. Dissolved in water, it causes an endothermic reaction used for cooling bags. In beekeeping, the white smoke that a small amount of nitrate produces when burning can anesthetize bees in order to be able to move a hive.

Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is the result of the reaction between ammonia and nitric acid.

World production

Russia is by far the leading producer country, with nearly 10 million tonnes in 2017, or 45% of world production, according to the FAO.

Mainly used in agriculture, it is subject to price seasonality: a tonne was selling, on average, for $ 340 at the end of 2018 and at the beginning of 2019, according to the European Commission.

Corn requires a lot of fertilizer.

Photo: Radio-Canada

The compound, like its derivatives, is subject to strict rules: it should to isolate the storage of fertilizers from products incompatible with ammonium nitrate, especially in the event of fire, specifies a technical sheet from the French Ministry of Agriculture, which notably cites flammable liquids, pressurized liquefied gases or corrosive liquids.

He points out that one of the main dangers associated with fertilizers containing ammonium nitrate is the detonation of ammonitrate at high dosage, or those containing more than 28% nitrogen. He adds that this danger is generally considered unlikely for products conforming to the standard and stored under normal conditions.

For the Norwegian mineral fertilizer manufacturer Yara, in general, ammonium nitrate fertilizers are safe if handled in accordance with European and industry regulations, he underlines to Agence France-Presse, specifying that he respects for his part strictly safety standards, which also apply to service providers.

Insensitive to impact and friction, ammonium nitrate is a “poor” explosive unless it is mixed with fuels such as hydrocarbons, or if it is melted and confined during, for example, a violent fire., indicates the Chemical Society of France.

The detonation wave of ammonium nitrate causes very significant destruction. It’s wreaking havoc, its accidentology is well known. Beirut explosion one of strongest chemical explosion in history, underlines Daniel Vanschendel, expert in explosives.

Explosions are typically detonations that cause enormous damage due to the supersonic shock wave, which is clearly visible in the videos from Beirut, comments Andrea Sella, chemist at London University UCL, quoted by the Science Media Center.

According to him, this is a catastrophic regulatory loophole, because the rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate are very clear.

In view the first white fumes, followed by an explosion which released a large red and brown cloud, then a white cloud in the shape of a “mushroom”, this indicates that the gases emitted are vapors of white ammonium nitrate, toxic nitrous oxide and water, adds Stewart Walker, professor at the Australian University of Flinders.

A compound at the origin of many tragedies, accidental and criminal

One of the very first accidents killed 561 people in 1921 in Oppau, Germany, at a BASF factory.

A building completely destroyed and set on fire.

Ammonium nitrate was the cause of a huge explosion in a factory in Toulouse in 2001.

Photo: Reuters / Jean Philippe Arles

In France, stacked in bulk in a hangar at the AZF chemical plant, in the southern suburbs of Toulouse, some 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrates suddenly exploded and caused a wind of death and desolation to blow over the fourth largest city. de France, September 21, 2001: 31 people died, and the explosion was heard 80 km around.

In the United States, too, a terrible explosion at the West Fertilizer fertilizer plant in West, Texas killed 15 people in 2013. A stockpile of ammonium nitrates exploded in an original fire. criminal; the absence of storage standards had been questioned by the investigators.

A destroyed building.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal building was destroyed by a bomb in 1995.

Photo : Reuters / Reuters Photographer

Ammonium nitrate can also be used in explosive devices. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb made from two tons of the fertilizer in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

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