How ammonium nitrate caused a massive explosion in Beirut
A massive explosion in the Lebanese capital city, Beirut, has left more than 100 dead and thousands homeless. More than 5,000 people are said to be injured, many of whom are serious.
Cause of the explosion
The Lebanese government said that the explosion was caused by over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate kept in storage for over six years.
Though a common chemical ingredient of agricultural fertilisers, the nitrogen rich compound is also the main component of the explosive composition known as ANFO — ammonium nitrate fuel oil.
Is it hazardous?
Ammonium nitrate, (NH4NO3) is a white, crystalline chemical which is soluble in water. It is the main ingredient in the manufacture of commercial explosives used in mining and construction.
Pure ammonium nitrate is not an explosive on its own, and hence is harmless. But if it’s mixed with ingredients like fuel or some other contaminants, or because of some other external factors, it can be very explosive.
In wrong hands
It can be misused if it falls into the wrong hands. Many Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) used by terrorists around the world have ANFO as the main explosive, which also uses explosives like RDX or TNT.
In many terror attacks that happened in India, like those in Pulwama, Varanasi, Malegaon, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai, ammonium nitrate was used along with RDX.
How storage is a problem
Large quantities of stored ammonium nitrate are regarded as a major fire hazard, with multiple reported cases across the world.
If the storage comes in contact with explosive mixture, it can be fatal. Or the blast can happen due to a fire which starts in the ammonium nitrate store because of the heat generated due to the oxidation process at large scale. This seems to be the primary likely cause of the incident at Beirut port.