Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Ammonium nitrate: what is the chemical blamed for blast in Lebanese capital?

The deadly explosion in Beirut has been blamed on thousands of tonnes of the chemical used in fertilisers and explosives


The likely cause of the huge blast in Beirut on Tuesday appears to have been the highly reactive chemical ammonium nitrate.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, said 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded after lying unsecured in a warehouse for six years, tallying with reports that a ship carrying a similar quantity of the chemical had unloaded its cargo at the port in 2013. It remains unclear what caused the chemical to ignite.
Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives.

It is not explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser, drawing oxygen to a fire – and therefore making it much more intense, according to Gabriel da Silva, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne.
However, da Silva said, it ignites only under the right circumstances, and these are difficult to achieve. “You need extreme circumstances to set off an explosion,” he said.
While ammonium nitrate can in fact put out a fire, if the chemical itself is contaminated, for example with oil, it becomes highly explosive. “I think that’s what’s happened here,” said da Silva.

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