Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound with the formula NH₄NO₃. The commercial grade contains about 33.5 percent nitrogen, all of which is in forms … Closed Captioning and Described Video is available for many CBC shows offered on CBC Gem. Ammonium nitrate has been used in terrorist attacks, such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. It is this rapid release of gases that causes an explosion. Ammonium nitrate is an … For decades, Australia has produced, stored and used ammonium nitrate without a major incident. Ammonium nitrate’s major use is as a fertiliser – this accounts for around 78% of its use (by volume) worldwide. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. The reason it's used as an explosive, said Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry at University College London, is that it can be very efficient. It is also the main component in many types of mining explosives, where it’s mixed with fuel oil and detonated by an explosive charge. It is a priority for CBC to create a website that is accessible to all Canadians including people with visual, hearing, motor and cognitive challenges. But how can such a chemical cause such a massive and destructive blast? The blast injured thousands and killed at least 78 people. Ammonium nitrate prills provide a much more concentrated supply of oxygen than the air around us. It is most commonly used as fertilizer for agricultural purposes — since it is highly soluble — but it is also used as an industrial explosive. Scientific American is part of Springer Nature, which owns or has commercial relations with thousands of scientific publications (many of them can be found at, New DIY Contact Tracing App Is Based on the Science of Memory, Deliberate Efforts to Achieve Herd Immunity to COVID Are Dangerous, Restoring Seagrass Brings Barren Bays To Life. Ammonium nitrate … An ammonium nitrate explosion produces massive amounts of nitrogen oxides. And there's nitrogen. This is why it is effective in mining explosives, where it’s mixed with oil and other fuels. When ammonium nitrate is changed from a solid to a gas, one of the byproducts is nitrogen dioxide. The latter is what happened in the 2015 Tianjin explosion, which killed 173 people after flammable chemicals and ammonium nitrate were stored together at a chemicals factory in eastern China. The main use of ammonium nitrate is as an additive to fertilizer, for helping nitrogen-poor soil. Using ammonium nitrate in gardens and large scale agricultural fields enhances plant growth and provides a ready supply of … I have a degree in mining engineering, and I remember one of my profs who had a tremendous amount of experience said, 'One of the biggest threats is human failure.'". It is most commonly used as fertilizer for agricultural purposes — … This will almost certainly have contributed to the tragic circumstances that resulted in a commonplace industrial fire causing such a devastating explosion. Read the original article. One of the most recent incidents was in 2015 in the Port of Tianjin, China. This article was originally published on The Conversation. 4 months ago. Ammonium nitrate has the chemical formula NH₄NO₃. That would make it unlikely that serious levels would remain at ground level, he said. Oftentimes, as seems to be the case in Beirut, once ammonium nitrate is stored and out of sight, it's out of mind, Diamond said. Experts believe the cause of the explosion is linked to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at a warehouse at the port in Lebanon's capital since 2014. Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used around the world as an agricultural fertilizer, and in explosives for mining. "There are all kinds of regulations which govern how you store it, how long for, under what conditions and so on," Sella said. The air was then compressed in front of the shockwave, and the air behind it expanded. Gabriel da Silva is a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne. It’s also used in … In pure form, ammonium nitrate … Ammonium nitrate liquid is the white crystals dissolved in water. To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Here in Australia, we produce and import large amounts of ammonium nitrate, mostly for use in mining. The other side has oxygen in it. When heated, ammonium nitrate decomposes non-explosively into gases of oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor; however, it can be induced to decompose explosively by detonation into nitrous oxide and water … Officials said that while there are no residential … The fumes in Beirut will present a health risk to residents until they naturally dissipate, which could take several days depending on the local weather. Ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizers and bomb making, is a salt made from ammonium and nitric acid, and it is highly explosive. For this reason it is widely used in … Produced as small porous pellets, or “prills”, it’s one of the world’s most widely used fertilisers. But one of the most dangerous aspects to ammonium nitrate is human complacency, said Miriam Diamond, a professor in the earth sciences department at the University of Toronto. But what is ammonium nitrate — and how can it cause such a devastating explosion? Its chemical formula is NH 4 NO 3 or N 2 H 4 O 3. It's something often referred to as a "Wilson cloud," Sella said, and typically happens when the air is humid. It is an oxidiser considered relatively safe if uncontaminated and … WATCH | Massive explosion at port rocks Beirut: In small amounts, ammonium nitrate isn't dangerous, Sella said. © 2020 Scientific American, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. Support our award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. Ammonium nitrate is predominantly … "There's a mythology that engineers and scientists have it all figured out," she said. Instead, it acts as a source of oxygen that can accelerate the combustion (burning) of other materials. WATCH | Canadian visiting Lebanon describes impact of blast: And then there's the issue of storage. Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted. Ammonium nitrate is the nitrate salt of the ammonium cation. The subsequent explosion levelled the town and killed 700 people. And so when the two halves are forced in some way to come together, you get huge amounts of gas and huge amounts of heat out," he said. In the case of Beirut, the fire that was evident ahead of the explosion acted as the fuel. This process creates gases including nitrogen oxides and water vapour. The key difference between calcium ammonium nitrate and ammonium nitrate is that calcium ammonium nitrate contains some amount of calcium along with ammonium nitrate whereas ammonium nitrate is the nitrate salt of ammonium cation which has no calcium in it.. Ammonium nitrate is an odorless, nearly colorless crystal salt. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives. Ammonium nitrate does not burn on its own. A fire triangle consists of ammonium, oxygen and the ignition. * Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used in fertilizers and as an explosive for quarrying and mining. By now, most people are familiar with the terrifying scene in the city of Beirut on Tuesday: an immense fire, red smoke billowing hundreds of metres into the air, followed by a jarring explosion with a rapidly expanding mushroom-like cloud that in the end killed at least 135 people and injured more than 5,000. Witnesses described the scene as 'total chaos. Ammonium nitrate is classified as dangerous goods and all aspects of its use are tightly regulated. It may be considered the ammonium analog to potassium nitrate or saltpeter. Ammonium nitrate, (NH 4 NO 3 ), a salt of ammonia and nitric acid, used widely in fertilizers and explosives. It is a white crystalline solid and is highly soluble in water. Finding it difficult to break apart to prepare for packaging, workers tried to use dynamite. It is made by combining ammonia gas with liquid nitric acid, which itself is made from ammonia. It has a role as a fertilizer, an explosive and an oxidizing agent. Produced as small porous pellets, or “prills”, it’s one of the world’s most widely used fertilisers. Nitrogen oxides are commonly present in urban air pollution, and can irritate the respiratory system. The explosion in Beirut shows us just how important these regulations are. "[Ammonium nitrate] is a great fertilizer for growing plants, but it's also wonderful as an explosive," Jimmy Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, told ABC News. ', Lebanese prime minister vows someone will 'pay the price' for deadly explosion in Beirut, Lebanon to probe why ammonium nitrate sat for years at Beirut port, Sami Basbous says that hospitals are over capacity, and people 'are trying to help each other. The country’s prime minister Hassan Diab said the blast was caused by around 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored near the city’s cargo port. Ammonium nitrate decomposition can be set off if an explosion occurs where it’s stored, if there is an intense fire nearby. Ammonium nitrate is commercially available and is often used in fertilizers and explosives. The more ammonium nitrate, or NH4-NO3, the … It’s a source of nitrogen, important for the growth of plants. Ammonium nitrate (the formula is NH4NO3) is a chemical compound which, due to its characteristics, is extremely versatile and inexpensive to produce. When the blast in Beirut occurred, it sent a shockwave that travelled faster than the speed of sound. Ammonia, one of the key building blocks, is a gas at room temperature, and this gas must be combined with nitric acid in order to produce fertilizer.The end product of this reaction is a solid whitish substance, ammonium nitrate… Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) is a red, bad-smelling gas. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. In addition to its many legitimate uses, ammonium nitrate … But what about the Beirut case, where a massive amount of nitrogen dioxide was released into the atmosphere in one sudden explosion? What is it used for? Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound that farmers normally spread as small pellets that dissolve in the soil and fertilize it. What is Ammonium Nitrate? "Any big explosion gives us a mushroom cloud," said Cheryl Rofer, a chemist who retired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Washington, D.C. "I think what threw a lot of people off and might have made them think it was nuclear was that spherical white cloud that formed and then dissipated rather quickly.". We reserve the right to close comments at any time. * Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used in fertilisers and as an explosive for quarrying and mining. Subscribers get more award-winning coverage of advances in science & technology. "Because you have the fire in the first place, then the very hot explosion, the gas will actually be chimneyed effectively upwards," Sella said. It is an oxidiser considered relatively safe if uncontaminated and … Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. Ammonium nitrate has the chemical formula NH₄NO₃. Sella said the compound consists of ammonia and nitric acid, but "if you close the triangle, the fire triangle, and you provide ignition, then you're heading into very deep trouble." Although some port officials have been placed under house arrest, it was still unclear … Ammonium nitrate is a chemical that exists in multiple concentrations and physical forms. Ammonium nitrate is a crystal-like white solid which is made in large industrial quantities. * Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical commonly used in fertilisers and as an explosive for quarrying and mining. What is it used for? The Lebanese capital Beirut was rocked on Tuesday evening local time by an explosion that has killed at least 78 people and injured thousands more. But on the other hand, given the right kind of kick, [it can] explode.". April 18, 2013 — Stephanie Pappas and LiveScience, April 18, 2013 — Marc Lallanilla and LiveScience. At high enough temperatures, however, ammonium nitrate can violently decompose on its own. By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Toxic oxides of nitrogen are … Explore our digital archive back to 1845, including articles by more than 150 Nobel Prize winners. The fire would need to be sustained and confined within the same area as the ammonium nitrate prills. Also, the prills themselves are not fuel for the fire, so they would need to be contaminated with, or packaged in, some other combustible material. Ammonium nitrate is an odorless, colorless or white, crystal salt produced by the reaction of ammonia and nitric acid. For an industrial ammonium nitrate disaster to occur, a lot needs to go wrong. "We don't actually, strangely enough. "On the one side, the ammonium has hydrogen in it. Box 500 Station A Toronto, ON Canada, M5W 1E6. Audience Relations, CBC P.O. Ammonium nitrate, which Lebanese authorities have said was the cause of the Beirut blast, is an odourless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertiliser that has been the cause of … The formula for ammonium nitrate is NH4NO3 which is a white, crystalline chemical in its pure form. Pure ammonium nitrate is not an explosive, however, when mixed with other elements such … It is principally used as an agricultural fertilizer, in the manufacturing of first aid products (such as cold packs), and explosives used in the mining and construction industries. The chemical compound ammonium nitrate is believed to have been the cause of the devastating explosion in Beirut on Tuesday. How is Ammonium Nitrate used? Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical which is used mainly as an agricultural fertiliser. Images from Beirut reveal a distinct reddish colour to the plume of gases from the blast. It’s relatively difficult for a fire to trigger an ammonium nitrate explosion. The terms calcium ammonium nitrate and ammonium nitrate … Ammonium nitrate is predominantly … It is perfectly … Elevated levels of these pollutants are particularly concerning for people with respiratory conditions. While we don’t know for sure what caused the explosion in Beirut, footage of the incident indicates it may have been set off by a fire – visible in a section of the city’s port area before the explosion happened. ', linked to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. Comments are welcome while open. Eventually you're unlucky.". For combustion to occur, oxygen must be present. The production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a complicated process. And what most people associate with that type of cloud tends to be nuclear explosions. It is also the main component in many … Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Tragically, this seems to have been the case in Beirut. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound with the formula NH₄NO₃. There are 2 different nitrogen atoms in $\ce{NH4NO3}$, one having oxidation number -3 and one with +5.They are different, having separate oxidation numbers independently of each other. Ammonium nitrate's other major use is an explosive mixture, especially used in mining, construction, among other things. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound with the formula NH4 NO3, and it's made by combining ammonia with nitric acid. In Beirut, it has been reported 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were stored in a warehouse for six years without proper safety controls. Though the material itself is noncombustible it will accelerate the burning of combustible materials. It is a good source of nitrogen for plants but in the right (or wrong) circumstances it is also … Sella said that one of the most notable accidents was in Oppau, Germany, in 1921, when ammonium nitrate being stored in a silo had hardened over winter. "It's both human error and sloppiness," she said. Video footage appears to show a fire burning nearby before the blast. “Ammonium nitrate is the ammonium salt of nitric acid. Ammonium nitrate is used as fertilizers because it contains a high amount of nitrogen, which is very important for plants and vegetables. "It's an interesting molecule because you have these white crystals, which if you keep them in a jar will sit for years on your laboratory shelf. Discover world-changing science. 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