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What Is Ammonium Nitrate, The Possible Cause Of The Beirut Explosion?

What Is Ammonium Nitrate, The Possible Cause Of The Beirut Explosion?

This isn’t the first ammonium nitrate explosion in history.

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Authorities in Beirut reported one of the suspected causes of the recent explosion to be ammonium nitrate. But, what is it? And how can it cause an explosion of that magnitude?

Ammonium nitrate,  also known as AN is a compound consisting of ammonia and nitrogen. It is a highly reactive material commonly used in agricultural fertilisers. 

AN is also used in the mining industry as an explosive to blast rock and move mounds of earth. It has some military applications as well.

By itself, AN is relatively harmless. However, if it is mixed with contaminants, or subjected to intense stress, like heat or pressure, the compound can become volatile.

A satellite image showing a massive crater at the site of Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut’s port. (Credit: Planet Labs Inc. via CNN)

To be clear, AN doesn’t burn. But it can melt if exposed to heat. When it melts, the compound releases combustible toxic gases that can cause an explosion. 

Lebanese officials believe about 2,750 metric tons of AN was stored as fertiliser in a warehouse at the port. The warehouse is also believed to have caught fire before it exploded.

Although nobody knows what actually happened in the Beirut explosion, the amount of AN being stored there as well as the fire prior to the explosion does offer some clues based on historical accounts of similar disasters.

A picture from a drone showing the aftermath of the explosion at the seaport of Beirut on 5 August. (Credit: Hussein Malla/AP via CNN)

Yes, there have been explosions due to AN in the past.

A notable one is also considered one of the worst disasters in US history involving a form of ammonia.

In April 1947 two ships loaded with AN caught fire while being docked in Texas City. The fire caused an explosion which killed at least 581 people, wounded 3,500 and damaged more than 1,000 buildings.

To put things in perspective, that explosion involved 2,087 metric tons of AN.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the bombing carried out in 1995. (Credit: NY Times)

Another incident was during the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, a US domestic terror attack by white supremacists which killed 168 people and wounded 467. 

About 1.8 metric tons of ammonium nitrate was mixed with diesel fuel to create a bomb inside a rental truck that detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

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