Beirut explosions: What is ammonium nitrate?

Officials in Lebanon believe that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at a port warehouse in Beirut were the cause of the devastating explosions Tuesday that has killed more than 130 people and injured at least 4,000.

Lebanon Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who promised there would be an investigation, said the chemical had been stored for the past six years “without preventive measures,” CNN reported.

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical widely used in fertilizer. Here are some things to know.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate, which has the chemical formula NH₄NO₃, is produced as small, porous pellets, called “prills,” Scientific American reported. The prills are normally spread and dissolve quickly when exposed to moisture, releasing nitrogen into the soil, The Wall Street Journal reported. The chemical is relatively harmless by itself because it does not burn on its own, according to Scientific American. It acts as a source of oxygen that can speed up the combustion of other materials.

“Ammonium nitrate normally sits nicely and behaves itself until you do something catastrophic to it,” Jimmie Oxley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, told The Wall Street Journal.

However, if the chemical is added to a fuel source and exposed to heat and pressure, it can explode, according to The New York Times.

“Because the gas takes up a higher volume than the solid, there’s a build-up of pressure and because of the heat released, the hot gas is higher in volume, so you get to the point that when it’s confined it will suddenly explode and will release that pressure in a shockwave,” Stewart Walker, an associate professor in the school of Forensic, Environmental and Analytical Chemistry at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, told CNN.

How strong was the explosion?

Tuesday’s explosion was one of the largest in recent history other than a nuclear bomb, Brian Castner, lead weapons investigator for Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team, told the Times.

“It’s the biggest explosion in an urban area in decades,” Castner told the newspaper. “The human impact of it is the important thing, and it affected people a dozen kilometers away.”

Tuesday’s mushroom-like cloud, which eerily looked like a nuclear explosion only two days before the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, was actually the shockwave produced by the second explosion, Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry at University College London, told The Wall Street Journal.

The tonnage in the Beirut warehouse was roughly equivalent to 1,155 tons of TNT, the Times reported. That produces a blast large enough to destroy most buildings within an 800-foot radius and would shatter glass more than a mile away, the newspaper reported. The Beirut explosion was much smaller than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, according to the Times. More than 140,000 people were killed when the bomb, which had 15 kilotons of energy, was detonated over the Japanese city.

Is there history?

Yes. Most notably 25 years ago in Oklahoma City, when two tons of the fertilizer were mixed with diesel fuel to create a bomb that detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The ensuing explosion on April 19, 1995, killed 168 people and injured more than 500. Former Army soldier Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, were found to be responsible for the act of domestic terrorism.

In 1921, a silo containing 4,500 metric tons of ammonium nitrate and other compounds exploded at a chemicals plant in Oppau, Germany. The explosion killed more than 500 people, The Wall Street Journal reported. The explosion occurred when workers used dynamite to break up ammonium nitrate that was caked together. The blast was heard in Munich, which was 125 miles away, the newspaper reported.

In 1947, an explosion in Texas City, Texas, killed at least 581 people and injured more than 3,500 after two cargo ships carrying ammonium nitrate caught fire, the Times reported. In 2013, a fire intentionally set at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded, killing 15 people.

In 2015, a fertilizer explosion killed 165 people at the seaport of Tianjin, China, the Times reported.

“Poorly stored ammonium nitrate is notorious for explosions,” Sella told CNN.


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