Ammonium Nitrate behind Beirut Elplosion – Blessing and Curse

datalators Beirut

After the Beirut disaster, do we handle our chemicals properly? Today on Datalators, Let’s see ins and outs of ammonium nitrate which is the chemical behind causing the death of more than 160 people and an M 3.3 scale earthquake leaving 300 thousand people homeless.

Beirut Explosion
Beirut Explosion and Ammonium Nitrate

What Is Ammonium Nitrate:

Ammonium Nitrate (NH4NO3) is a white crystalline solid chemical component consisting of ions of ammonium and nitrate. It is highly soluble in water and hygroscopic as a solid, although it does not form hydrates. Ammonium Nitrate is also highly hygroscopic, meaning that it readily absorbs water from the atmosphere and clumps up. It is not particularly reactive and is fairly stable.
The use necessity of Ammonium Nitrate is fulfilled by chemical industries around the world.

We need around 20 million tons of Ammonium nitrate globally and major use of this is in agriculture. Because two ions of nitrogen (Ammonium and Nitrate) gives it an advantage over other nitrogen-base fertilizers. And this way this simple and cheap chemical serving humanity against famine.

Ammonium Nitrate Explosion:

There is another use of Ammonium Nitrate, as an explosive. ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil) which is a mixture of Ammonium Nitrate and fuel oil is a widely used bulk industrial explosive, used in mining and construction work. Ammonium nitrate is a great explosive itself (firepower – 40% of TNT) but it is mixed with fuel because it is hard to detonate. Supplying a fair amount of heat to a store/lump of Ammonium Nitrate will do cause the detonation which we have seen in Beirut and as well as many other cities throughout history.

Learn 11 facts about Beirut Explosion in 60 seconds on Twitter and YouTube

Beirut and other disasters:

From the very beginning of the history of Ammonium Nitrate, it caused massive disasters from time to time because of irresponsible handling and ill will.
In Beirut, 2750 tons of Deadly explosive (old lumps serve the purpose of the hard metal-shell of grenade) AN was kept in a warehouse just next to the seaport in the populated capital city entangled with the civil residence not maintaining the safety regulation of hazardous chemical storage.
It is assumed the detonation was caused by fireworks. Which sign the people were unaware that they were coexisting with a 2750 tons peaceful neighbor bomb.

Similar disaster took place in the past but we haven’t learnt our lesson yet. Here is the list of AN disasters from Wikipedia.

Country City/Location Date Deaths AN (tonnes) Notes
 United States Gibbstown, New Jersey January 14, 1916 1 1.81 In an evaporating pan of the Repauno works, du Pont Co., 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate exploded, possibly caused by a clogged air lance leading to overheating of the nitrate. 1 man was killed and 12 were injured. [4]
 United Kingdom Faversham, Kent April 2, 1916 115 700 The Great Explosion: On April 2, 1916, a factory in Uplees, Faversham, exploded after a fire spread to a store of 25 tons of TNT and 700 tons of ammonium nitrate. The blast at the Explosives Loading Company killed 115 people and shattered windows in Southend-on-Sea across the Thames Estuary while the tremor was felt in Norwich.[5]
 United States Oakdale, Pennsylvania September 15, 1916 6 1.36 An Aetna Chemical Co. plant suffered an explosion of 3,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, while concentrating it in a pan by evaporation. The speculated cause was impurities within the nitric acid used to produce the ammonium nitrate. Six men were killed and eight injured. The shock wave was felt at a distance of 7 miles. [4]
 Germany Kriewald July 26, 1921 19 30 On July 26, 1921, in this railway town (now in Poland) workers tried to dislodge 30 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had aggregated (solidified into one mass) in two wagons. When mining explosives were used on this solid mass the wagons exploded and killed nineteen people.[6]
 Germany Oppau September 21, 1921 561 450 (out of 4500) Explosion at BASF plant Oppau: Another attempt at disaggregation of a fertilizer mix with industrial explosives caused the death of 561 people and left more than 2,000 injured. The fertilizer was a 50:50 mixture of ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate and the factory had used this method of disaggregation over 20,000 times without incident. It is thought that, on this occasion, poor mixing had led to certain parts of the mass containing more ammonium nitrate than others. Only 450 tonnes exploded, out of 4500 tonnes of fertilizer stored in the warehouse.[7]
 United States Nixon, New Jersey
(now Edison Township)
March 1, 1924 20 2 1924 Nixon Nitration Works disaster: On March 1, 1924, a fire and several large explosions destroyed a warehouse containing 4800 pounds of ammonium nitrate at the Nixon Nitration Works. The explosiveness of the product was perhaps enhanced, as it had been prepared using nitric acid that had previously been used for the production of TNT. [4]
 United States Muscle Shoals, Alabama 1925 0 On April 4, 1925, and May 3, 1925, two carloads, each containing 220 barrels of ammonium nitrate, were dispatched from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and caught fire in transportation. The barrels had been stored in a warehouse with varying humidity for 6 years, so it is believed that they were ignited by friction with their nitrate-impregnated manila paper lining. Other shipments were reportedly more successful.[8]
 France Miramas August 5, 1940 0 240 240 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in sacks exploded after being hit by a shell from a nearby fire in a munitions train.[9]
 Belgium Tessenderlo April 29, 1942 189 150 An attempt to disaggregate a pile of 150 tonnes of ammonium nitrate with industrial explosives killed 189 people and wounded another 900.[10]
 United States Texas City April 16, 1947 581 2086 +


Texas City disaster: The cargo ship Grandcamp was being loaded on April 16, 1947, when a fire was detected in the hold: at this point, 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate in sacks were already aboard.[11] The captain responded by closing the hold and pumping in pressurised steam. One hour later, the ship exploded, killing several hundred people and setting fire to another vessel, the High Flyer, which was moored 250 metres away and which contained 1,050 tonnes of sulfur and 960 tons of ammonium nitrate. The Grandcamp explosion also created a powerful earthshock that broke windows as far as 40 miles away and knocked two small planes flying at 1,500 feet (460 m) out of the sky. The High Flyer exploded the next day, after having burned for sixteen hours. 500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on the quayside also burned, but without exploding, probably because it was less tightly packed. All but one member of the Texas City fire department died.
 France Brest July 28, 1947 29 1700-3309 The Norwegian cargo ship Ocean Liberty was loaded with 3,309 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and various flammable products when it caught fire at 12:30 July 28, 1947. The captain ordered the hold to be sealed and pressurised steam was pumped in. As this did not stop the fire, the vessel was towed out of the harbour at 14:00, and exploded at 17:00. The explosion caused 29 deaths and serious damage to the port of Brest.[4][12][13]
 United States Presque Isle, Maine August 26, 1947 0 217 An A.W. Higgins Company plant was destroyed by a spontaneous heating in a pile of mixed fertilizer. Stored in the plant were 240 tons of Ammonium Nitrate. [4]
 Canada St. Stephen, New Brunswick 1947 0 360 The Summers Fertilizer Company plant suffered a fire, causing 400 tons of stored ammonium nitrate to be consumed by fire. There was no explosion. [4]
Red Sea 1953 0 A fire was detected on the Finnish cargo ship Tirrenia on January 23, 1953, while it was carrying ammonium nitrate. Attempts to extinguish the fire with steam were unsuccessful, and the ship was abandoned before it exploded later in the night.[14]
 United States Roseburg, Oregon August 7, 1959 14 4.1 The Roseburg Blast: A truck carrying dynamite and 4.5 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire early in the morning of August 7, 1959. When it exploded it killed 14 people and injured 125 more. Several blocks of downtown Roseburg were destroyed. The accident is locally referred to as “The Blast”. [15]
 United States Traskwood, Arkansas December 17, 1960 0 140-180 On December 17, 1960, a 96 freight car train suffered partial derailment, in which the last 23 cars were derailed. The derailed cars included: four fuel oil tank cars, two tank cars of gasoline, three tank cars of petroleum oil, four cars of lube oil drums, three cars of liquid fertilizer, one car of fuming nitric acid and two cars of fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate. In this particular accident, neither car of ammonium nitrate exploded.[16] However, the nitric acid reacted with the fuel oil, possibly creating nitrated aromatic compounds, whose explosion resulted in the spread of the ammonium nitrate material around the incident site.[17]
 Australia Taroom, Queensland August 30, 1972 3 12 A truck carrying 12 tons of ammonium nitrate experienced an electrical fault and caught fire north of Taroom. After the driver stopped and parked the burning truck, two brothers from a nearby cattle property who saw the fire rode up on motorbikes to assist. The three men were killed when the truck exploded. The explosion burnt out more than 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of surrounding bushland, and left a deep crater where the truck had been parked. A memorial to the three men was unveiled at the accident site in 2013.[18][19][20][21]
 United States Kansas City, Missouri November 29, 1988 6 23 (ANFO) On November 29, 1988, at 4:07 AM two trailers containing approximately 50,000 lb (23,000 kg) of the explosive ANFO (ammonium nitrate with fuel oil) exploded at a construction site located near the 87th street exit of Highway 71 in Kansas City, Missouri. The explosives were to be used in the blasting of rock while constructing Highway 71. The result of the explosions were the deaths of six firemen from the Kansas City Fire Department’s Pumper Companies 30 and 41. Both companies were dispatched after 911 calls indicated that a pickup truck located near the trailers had been set on fire. The responding companies were warned that there were explosives on-site; however, they were unaware that the trailers were essentially magazines filled with explosives. At 4:07 AM one of the “magazines” caught fire and a catastrophic explosion occurred, killing all six firemen instantly — only sparing remains were found. A second blast occurred 40 minutes later, although all fire crews had been pulled back at this time. The blasts created two craters, each approximately 100 feet (30 m) wide and 8 feet (2.4 m) deep. The explosions also shattered windows within a 10-mile (16 km) area and could be heard 40 miles (64 km) away. It was later determined that the explosions were acts of arson, set by individuals embroiled in a labor dispute with the construction company contracted to build the highway.[22][23]
 Papua New Guinea Porgera Gold Mine August 2, 1994 11 80 (ANE) At 9:45 am, 2 August 1994, 11 workers were killed when the sensitised AN emulsion plant they were working on exploded at the Porgera Gold Mine. The fatal explosion involved at most a few tonnes of explosive. A larger explosion of about 80 tonnes of emulsion (Ammonium Nitrate Emulsion, ANE, UN 3375) was caused by fires under storage facilities at the site at 11:02 AM. There were no fatalities in the second explosion because the site had been evacuated. A mushroom cloud was seen to rise.[24]

ANE is an emulsion of ammonium nitrate, fuel and water.

 United States Port Neal, Iowa December 13, 1994 4 Port Neal fertilizer plant explosion: At about 6:06 AM on December 13, 1994, two explosions rocked the Port Neal, Iowa, ammonium nitrate processing plant operated by Terra Industries. Four people were killed and 18 injured. Approximately 5,700 tons of anhydrous ammonia were released and releases of ammonia continued for six days after the explosions. Groundwater under the processing plant was contaminated by chemicals released as a result of the blast. The timing of the explosion occurred prior to the start of the arrival of the 8:00 AM shift personnel, or the death toll might have been larger.[25][26]
China Xingping, Shaanxi January 6, 1998 22 27.6 At midnight on January 6, 1998, the Xinghua Fertilizer company had a series of explosions in the plant. About 27.6 tons of ammonium nitrate liquor was in a container there. The explosion claimed 22 lives, with a further 56 wounded. The explosion was officially announced as an accident.[27][citation needed]
 France Toulouse September 21, 2001 31 200-300 AZF: On September 21, 2001, at 10:15 AM, in the AZF (Azote de France) fertiliser factory in Toulouse, France, an explosion occurred in a warehouse where the off-specification granular AN was stored flat, separated by partitions. About 200–300 tonnes were said to be involved in the explosion, resulting in 31 people dead and 2,442 injured, 34 of them seriously. The blast wave shattered windows up to 3 km away, and the resulting crater was 10 m deep and 50 m wide. The exact cause remains unknown. The material damage was estimated at 2.3 billion euros. France’s Environment Minister initially suggested the explosion “may have been a terrorist attack” as it occurred soon after the September 11 attacks and one worker may have had militant views.
 Spain Cartagena, Murcia January 2003 0 The fertilizer storage facility of Fertiberia held a self-sustained decomposition (SSD) fire in January 2003. The fire was controlled after most of the material was removed by mechanical means.[citation needed]
 France Saint-Romain-en-Jarez October 2, 2003 0 3-5 A fire broke out in Saint-Romain-en-Jarez (Loire) in a barn, which at the time of the accident contained a gasoline-powered forklift, a battery charger, two 13-kg gas bottles, miscellaneous farm machinery, 500 kg of quicklime, 500 wooden crates, 6,000 to 7,000 plastic crates, and between 3 and 5 tonnes of ammonium nitrate packaged in big bags. Bales of hay and straw were being stored on the mezzanine and ≈500 kg apples kept in the cold storage rooms. The fire started around 3 PM, and fire-fighters were notified of the blaze at 4:02 PM. They arrived on the scene at 4:23 and started to extinguish the fire. At 5:12 PM the explosion occurred. Twenty-six people were injured from the blast, most of them fire-fighters.[28]
 Spain Barracas March 9, 2004 2 25 A truck carrying 25 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded half an hour after a traffic accident on March 9, 2004, killing two people and injuring five others. The explosion, which could be heard at a distance of several kilometers caused a crater five metres deep.[29]
 Romania Mihăileşti, Buzău May 24, 2004 18 20 Mihăileşti explosion: A truck carrying 20 tonnes of ammonium nitrate tipped over on the European road E85 near Mihăileşti at 4:57 AM on May 24, 2004. Shortly afterwards, a fire started in the cabin. Two reporters got to the site of the accident and started filming while firemen were trying to stop the fire. Around 5:50 AM the truck exploded, killing 18 and wounding 13 people. A crater 6.5 meters deep and 42 meters in diameter was formed by the explosion.
 North Korea Ryongchŏn April 22, 2004 162 Ryongchon disaster: A freight train carrying ammonium nitrate exploded in this important railway town near the Chinese border on April 22, 2004, killing 162 people and injuring over 3,000 others. The train station was destroyed, as were most buildings within 500 metres, and nearly 8,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. Two craters of about ten metres in depth were seen at the site of the explosion. The authorities blamed “human error” for the explosion, although rumours persist that it was in fact an attempt to assassinate the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, who was due to be passing through the station at the time.
 Spain Estaca de Bares 2007 0 400 The NPK fertilizer cargo of the ship Ostedijk sustained a self-sustained decomposition (SSD) fire for 11 days. The ship carried a total of 6012 tonnes of NPK. Cargo hold 2, where the decomposition occured, contained 2627 tonnes of fertilizer. NPK fertilizer contains about 15% ammonium nitrate. The fire plume reached 10 m in diameter and several hundred meters in length. Special water spears were inserted inside the cargo to extinguish the fire.[30]
 Mexico Monclova, Coahuila September 10, 2007 40 22 (ANFO) On September 10, 2007, near Monclova, Coahuila, México, a pickup truck lost control and crashed into a trailer loaded with 22 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil explosives (ANFO) leaving three occupants in the pick-up truck dead in the crash. A fire then started in the trailer’s cabin and approximately 40 minutes after that, a huge explosion occurred, resulting in 37 deaths and around 150 more people injured. A crater 9 m (30 ft) wide and 1.8 m (6 ft) deep was created due to the explosion.[31]
 United States Bryan, Texas July 30, 2009 0 A plant in Bryan, Texas (El Dorado Chemical Company), which processes ammonium nitrate into fertilizer, caught fire at about 11:40 AM on July 30, 2009. Over 80,000 residents in the Bryan/College Station area were asked to evacuate south of town due to the toxic fumes this fire generated. Texas A&M University provided shelter at Reed Arena, a local venue on campus. Only minor injuries were reported.[32][33]
 United States West, Texas April 17, 2013 15 240 West Fertilizer Company explosion: A fertilizer company in West, Texas, caught fire. Around 20 minutes later, ammonium nitrate stored there exploded, leveling roughly 80 homes and a middle school. 133 residents of a nearby nursing home were trapped in the ruins. In all, 15 were killed, and about 200 injured. There were reports that the facility had stored more ammonium nitrate than it was allowed to, without regulation by the Department of Homeland Security.[34][35]
 Australia Wyandra, Queensland September 6, 2014 0 56 A truck carrying 56 tonnes rolled on a rural road, exploding shortly after the driver was rescued. The explosion was heard 30 km away with debris being thrown 2 km, it totally destroyed a highway bridge. The driver and six firemen were injured.[36]
China Port of Tianjin August 12, 2015 173 800 2015 Tianjin explosions: Nitrocellulose stored at a hazardous goods warehouse spontaneously combusted after becoming overly hot and dry, resulting in a fire that 40 minutes later triggered the detonation of about 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored nearby. 110 emergency personnel and 55 residents and employees were killed, while eight are missing[needs update]. 798 people were injured.[37] There was extensive damage to structures and goods at the port, damage to surrounding apartment blocks, and severe damage to a railway station.
 Lebanon Beirut August 4, 2020 157+ 2750 2020 Beirut explosions: On August 4, a major fire broke out in a Port of Beirut warehouse and spread to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been impounded and stored for six years after it was seized from an abandoned ship in 2014.[38] It then detonated, causing immense damage throughout the entire city from the shockwave that was reportedly so intense it was felt in Cyprus, an island about 240 km (150 miles) north-west of Lebanon.[39] A giant orange cloud was seen following the detonation. As of August 6 2020, there are at least 5,000 confirmed injuries and over 157 confirmed deaths. [40][41] According to Beirut’s city governor, up to 300,000 people have lost their homes.[42]

It is paramount that an investigation reveals all the circumstances of the disaster, particularly how such a large and potentially dangerous amount of explosive material came to be stored for so long in such a vulnerable location, how it passed rudimentary safety checks or whether it was even subjected to them.

Lesson We Should Learn Before Another Chemical Doomsday

Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
Humen and chemicals don’t go along well.
Chemists put the safety signs for a reason.
Irresponsibility kills.

Why learning from past matters.

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