Almost everyone, who is even in the slightest touch with the internet or the mass media, is aware of the devastating explosion that took place in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon in August. The Forensic Engineers that later checked the scene pointed the finger towards 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which was stored in a warehouse of Beirut, as the cause of the incident.
While we have witnessed the devastating capacity of the chemical, most of us do not know what ammonium nitrate exactly is, and how it can be so devastating for us. In the following section of this article, we have talked about this matter. Take a look to know about ammonium nitrate.
What Is Ammonium Nitrate?
Ammonium Nitrate (NH4-NO3) is a crystalline salt that consists of ammonium and nitric acid. The high nitrogen content of ammonium nitrate makes it one of the most used fertilizers across the world. Even though this chemical is also used in making explosives for the mining industry, the ammonium nitrate is quite a stable chemical. If you maintain all the regulations and rules, the chemical can be stored without any problems. Without the absence of heat, it is hard to ignite the chemical in the natural storage conditions.
Saying that, this chemical does have some chequered past. Even before the Beirute incident, ammonium nitrate has caused several other serious industrial accidents.
Is Ammonium Nitrate Explosive?
The simple answer to this question is, no. A fire caused by ammonium nitrate is highly unlikely. However, it is a strong oxidizing agent that helps other combustible components to ignite.
The chemical is mostly used as fertilizers as we have explained earlier. However, every experienced Forensic Engineer knows that ammonium nitrate works as one of the major key components and oxidizing agents for making bulk industrial explosives.
In such explosives, the role of ammonium nitrate is to intensify the combustion level and make other components, like ANFO, to ignite more aggressively.
Ammonium nitrate would only explode if it is kept in a confined space with excessive pressure and heat. In such occasions, a thick cloud of ammonia, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide would appear.
On its own, ammonium nitrate is not combustible.
What IS ANFO?
ANFO is an industrial explosive that is formed when ammonium nitrate is mixed with other explosive components, like powdered aluminum or fuel oil. ANFO is generally used for mining, civil infrastructures or quarrying. Compared to other industrial explosives, ANFO is not that expensive and easy to use. However, ANFO is highly explosive and if incorrectly stored, can cause catastrophic explosions and combustion fires.
How Ammonium Nitrate Can Cause Such Explosions?
To understand how ammonium nitrate can cause such explosions, let’s consider a simple warehouse fire. Generally, the temperature of the warehouse fire can reach up to 1000F-2000F as the fire consumes the available fuel sources. Now, add the ammonium nitrate into this equation. As the fire combines with ammonium nitrate, it starts to decompose fast. During this process, the chemical generates heat along with oxidizing gasses and other by-products. This excess heat can cause the fire to burn more violently and can cause a bigger disaster. This phenomenon is known as the burning down or deflagration.
The byproduct of this chemical reaction, which contains oxygen as well, is consumed by the existing fire, which, in turn, accelerates the temperature.
Potential Hazards of Ammonium Nitrate
Under normal circumstances, ammonium nitrate is not at all harmful. Experienced Forensic Engineering thinks that inhalation of highly concentrated ammonium nitrate dust can cause irritation in the respiratory tract of people. The symptoms of such problems can include shortness of breath, sore throats, coughing, or sometimes even suffocation.
If swallowed in high concentration, the ammonium nitrate can cause dizziness, convulsions, suffocation, abdominal pain, collapse, circulation irregularities, tingling sensations, bloody diarrhea etc. When ammonium nitrate gets mixed with water, it forms a mild acid. This acid can cause irritation to the eyes, skin and nose.
Emergency Response Procedure After Ammonium Nitrate Accidents
In the case of the spills or the discharge of ammonium nitrate, people should get in touch with the emergency services. The fire department of the state will collect the spilled chemical in the suitable containers and would take it away from the spot. That spilled content can be reused or can be disposed of in the right manner.
As the chemical process continues, it generates more by-products, which feed the fire while enhancing the temperature each time. As this process accelerates, the byproducts get released rapidly. This rapid release of gasses is what causes the explosion. This explosion in turn vaporizes the ammonium nitrate and creates the perfect atmosphere of a bigger explosion.
While witnessing the catastrophe of Beirut, one can easily remember the devastation or Waco, TX or explosion in Port of Tianjin. Irrespective of time and space, whenever the explosions happen due to ammonium nitrate, the results are always catastrophic. The experienced Forensic Engineer thinks that the low cost of the chemical and high stability under normal circumstances would be the biggest barriers in the reduction of the usage of this chemical across the world. That’s why it is even more important for the authorities to follow the guidelines to the tee and make people aware of the dangers of Ammonium Nitrate.
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