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Ammonium nitrate linked to catastrophic Beirut explosion

  • Category
    Science & Technology
  • Published
    13th Aug, 2020

Beirut was declared a "disaster city", in the wake of a huge explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital that left at least 135 people dead and 5,000 injured, caused by over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate kept in storage for over six years.

Context

Beirut was declared a "disaster city", in the wake of a huge explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital that left at least 135 people dead and 5,000 injured, caused by over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate kept in storage for over six years.

About

Ammonium nitrate, the substance

  • In its pure form, 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.
  • In India, The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012, under The Explosives Act, 1884, define ammonium nitrate as the-

“compound with formula NH4NO3 including any mixture or compound having more than 45 per cent ammonium nitrate by weight including emulsions, suspensions, melts or gels but excluding emulsion or slurry explosives and non explosives emulsion matrix and fertilizers from which the ammonium nitrate cannot be separated”.

Regulation of Ammonium Nitrate in India

  • The manufacture, conversion, bagging, import, export, transport, possession for sale or use of ammonium nitrate is covered under The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012.
  • The rules also make storage of ammonium nitrate in large quantities in populated areas illegal in India.
  • For the manufacture of ammonium nitrate, an Industrial licence is required under the Industrial Development and Regulation Act, 1951.
  • A license under the Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012 is also required for any activity related to ammonium nitrate.

Is it explosive?

  • Pure ammonium nitrate is not an explosive on its own. It is classified as an oxidiser (Grade 5.1) under the United Nations classification of dangerous goods.
  • If mixed with ingredients like fuel or some other contaminants, or because of some other external factors, it can be very explosive.
  • However, for combinations to explode, triggers like detonators are required. Many Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) used by terrorists around the world have ANFO as the main explosive, triggered by primary explosives like RDX or TNT.

Is stored ammonium nitrate a major fire hazard?

  • Large quantities of stored ammonium nitrate are regarded as a major fire hazard.
  • The explosion of large storage can happen primarily in two ways.
    • Contact with explosive mixture:One is by some type detonation or initiation because the storage comes in contact with explosive mixture.
    • Fire or heat generation:Second, the blast can result due to a fire which starts in the ammonium nitrate store because of the heat generated due to the oxidation process at large scale.
  • There are several documented examples of deadly ammonium nitrate fire and explosion incidents in the past, some with large numbers of fatalities like in Chinain 2015 and in Texas in 1947.
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