Ammonium nitrate, what is the chemical in deadly Beirut explosion?


There was a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital this week when more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly volatile chemical, exploded.

According to government officials, the stockpill had been abandoned for years at the city’s port in a densely populated area, which are still under investigation. Ammonium nitrate is commercially available and is often used in fertilizers and explosives.

Although some port officials have been kept under House arrest, It was still unclear what exactly caused an explosion on Thursday that flattened the area and sent a cloud of orange smoke across the city, blowing windows and destroying homes. The explosion was so loud that it was heard about 140 miles away in Cyprus. As of Thursday, at least 137 people had died and more than 5,000 were injured.

Prime Minister Hasan Diab said it was “unacceptable” that the amount of ammonium nitrate had been in a warehouse for six years without “preventive measures” to protect it.

What is ammonium nitrate and how dangerous is it?

“It’s a very common chemical that anyone who has used fertilizer has dealt with regularly and thinks nothing of it,” said Nathan Lewis, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Asking for trouble, and this is clearly what happened. “

Lewis said that it can be safely stored chemically in its pure form.

A Pakistani dealer keeps ammonium nitrate-containing fertilizer in Multan, Pakistan on August 25, 2011.Khalid Tanveer / AP File

“On the other hand, inadvertently or intentionally, if you mix fuel with ammonium nitrate, it is a very dangerous explosive,” he said. “There are protocols for storing it safely: Do not let it near the fuel, do not let it remain in a confined space.”

Kartish Manthiram, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the cause of such a dangerous explosion is the rapid expansion of ammonium nitrate from solid to gas.

“This amount of ammonium nitrate is enough to fill half the Olympic-sized pool, and the expansion of ammonium nitrate volume will then be enough to fill half of AT&T Stadium or half of Dallas Cowboys Stadium,” he said. “So, it’s just a huge increase in volume.”

How should ammonium nitrate be stored?

Manthiram said that the US has certain rules for storing certain amounts of ammonium nitrate.

Manthiram said that both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Homeland Security regulate the substance. OSHA states that if you have more than 1,000 pounds of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, it must be stored in a one-story building with adequate ventilation in case of a fire and enough water to fight a potential fire. Must use supplies and fire hydrants. he said.

There are additional regulations from the DHS, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, which apply to hundreds of chemicals that can be misused in the context of terrorism, he said.

“This is certainly a huge security threat that would have been dealt with quite differently in the US”, Manthiram said of the amount of material stored in Beirut.

University of Rhode Island chemistry professor Jimmy Oxley said some 200 factories produce the chemical worldwide and that it is “a very valuable commodity, both as a fertilizer and as an explosive.”

“If you’re doing any type of mining, you’re going to use this material to make your explosives,” she said.

Oxley stated that no manufacturer would have stored the material the way it was held at the port in Beirut.

Generally such storage sites are near mines and thus not close to large population centers. Oxley said there are only two plants in the US that make fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate, both in the south nor in between large residential areas.

Have there been previous incidents involving ammonium nitrate?

The chemical has been involved in terrorist attacks and accidents for hundreds of deaths in the past.

Manthiram said, “America faced some disasters like this some time ago.”

In 1947, at least 581 people were killed when more than 2,000 tons of chemical explosions occurred on a cargo ship docked at a port in Texas, Texas.

In the same year, in Brest, France, a Norwegian ship containing approximately 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 29 people.

“These were one of many early events that led to the rise of the rules,” he said. “With 70 years of experience handling these kinds of chemicals, I think there’s really no good reason for this to happen.”

Timothy McVeigh used two tons of ammonium nitrate to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. It was also used in the 1970 bombing of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, killing one and injuring several.

“Almost every day it seems to be an innocuous molecule, because it is a fertilizer, which makes it harmless in a way,” Manthiram said, “It seems,” and then such an event as a whole Can be in someone’s perspective. “

What about the origin of 2,750 tons of chemicals in Beirut?

Amosium nitrate arrived in Beirut in the fall of 2013 aboard the ship’s then-captain Boris Prokhov, the Russian-owned cargo ship, Rodos, told NBC News. It was the route from Batumi’s Georgian Black Sea Port to Mozambique, where it was to be used as fertilizer, he said.

Proksov said it closed in Beirut but was shut down for security reasons because it was overloaded and listed.

“The ship couldn’t take it,” he said of the weight.

According to the captain and Natalia Sokolova, a representative of Russia’s Seaforian Union, who represented the crew, the ship’s Russian owner, Igor Grechskin, abandoned the ship, for docking fees, fines and even the crew Refused to pay salary and food. During its dispute with the owner.

NBC News tried, but was not able to reach Grechuskin for comment.

Sokolova said, “The Beirut Port Authority will not allow the release of a vessel carrying such cargo.” “In the end, a court seized the vessel to sell it as a means to pay off the ship owner’s debt, and a port agent found the locals to unload the cargo and the crew home. gone.”

The governor of Beirut, Marwan Aboud, supported the account by telling the country’s LBCI television station that the chemical was kept in port under a “judicial order” and that there were no one to take responsibility for deciding to remove it. “

After inspecting the port, Home Minister Mohammad Fahmi told reporters on Wednesday that the investigation would take a maximum of five days.