Beirut: What is ammonium nitrate?

The recent deflagration caused by a pyrotechnic warehouse in Beirut has left everyone with endless questions. So far, it is considered a few thousand wounded and about 50 deceased who experienced in their own flesh a representation of what, in the words of the governor of the Lebanese town, would be a Hiroshima bomb. The culprit: a chemical stored in exorbitant amounts called ammonium nitrate.

Fire in a cargo ship in the middle of the ocean near Canary Islands, Spain. Source: La Vanguardia

It would not be the first time that this highly flammable chemical has put people’s lives in jeopardy, as early as 2017, a ship loaded with the fertilizer that left 40,000 tons of the element from Norway to Thailand suffered a similar fate . But what is ammonium nitrate and why did it detonate the way it did?

NH4NO3

This white, odorless compound comes from a simple mix. In a laboratory it can be obtained by double decomposition between ammonium sulfate (NH4) 2SO4 and strontium nitrate [Sr (NO3) 2], in solution. After strontium sulfate precipitates and the solution is filtered and then evaporated. Thus ammonium nitrate is obtained in crystals or white powder.

Although its application dates back mainly to pyrotechnics, mining, aeronautics, among other large sectors, ammonium nitrate is a highly dangerous chemical so its use is regulated.

Lethal combinations

According to Security Director Abbas Ibrahim, there were 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut, stored for six years. However, in the establishment it was found Sodium nitrate (NaNO3), another fertilizer that in contact with fire can cause the outbreak witnessed during the early hours of Tuesday.

Terrorism, Wars and sausages

Due to the abundance of both chemicals in their natural state, especially from countries like Peru and Chile, and their easy recreation in laboratories, these types of chemicals have been the main ingredient in the pumps that organizations like Hezbollah used to carry out their terrorist acts. Thus, among other examples, the 1944 attack in Argentina on an Israeli Jewish group was carried out.

Another use, in addition to pyrotechnics and homemade bombs, is the one that has been given in the military field for ammunition. However, its use decreased after the First World War. Still, it is easily detectable even in foods, such as sausages, and preservatives, which questions the origin of different types of cancer due to their intake.

These chemical components are highly toxic and harmful to the touch. In other uses it can be found in controlled detonations such as mining.