What is ammonium nitrate? The cause of the explosion in Beirut

Ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate is a salt formed by nitrate and ammonium ions that is mainly used as a fertilizer due to its high nitrogen content.

2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse were the cause of the two explosions that devastated everything in Beirut, leaving at least 73 dead and more than 3,000 injured. 

This was confirmed by the Prime Minister of Lebanon, who explained that ammonium nitrate had been stored for more than 6 years without any control measure. But what is ammonium nitrate? For what do you use it? Can it cause two explosions like the ones registered in Beirut?

The ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrate is a salt formed by ammonium and nitrate ions is used mainly as fertilizer because of its high nitrogen content. 

Ammonium nitrate is a white, odorless salt that is used as the base for many granular nitrogenous fertilizers, aminonitrates, highly soluble in water and purchased by farmers in large bags. 

They are not combustible products, but oxidants. Its detonation is possible in medium and high doses and in the presence of combustible substances or intense sources of heat.

A part of the production is dedicated to the production of nitrous oxide through controlled thermolysis. This reaction is exothermic and can be explosive if carried out in a closed container or heated too quickly.

It has different uses, from the industrial one, where it is used for the modification of the zeolite; as a fertilizer, where highly water soluble salt is the preferred source of nitrogen in fertilizers; And also as an explosive, as a strong oxidizing agent, ammonium nitrate makes an explosive mixture when combined with a hydrocarbon, usually diesel fuel (oil), or sometimes kerosene.

That is why the storage of ammonium nitrate must follow strict regulations to isolate it from flammable liquids (gasoline, oils, etc.), corrosive liquids, flammable solids or substances that emit heat, among other prohibited substances, according to a technical sheet from the Ministry of French agriculture.

Ammonium nitrate has been the protagonist of numerous tragedies - accidental and criminal - in the world. One of his first accidents left 561 dead in 1921 at a BASF plant in Oppau, Germany.

In France, some 300 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in bulk in a hangar at the AZF chemical plant in Toulouse exploded on September 21, 2001, leaving 31 dead. The deflagration was heard 80 km away.

Also in the United States, a terrible explosion at the West Fertilizer plant, in Texas, killed 15 people in 2013, after an ammonium nitrate deposit exploded due to arson. The researchers questioned the absence of storage standards for the product at the Texas plant.

However, ammonium nitrate can also be used to make explosives. On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a two-ton fertilizer bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, leaving 168 dead and nearly 700 wounded.

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