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What is ammonium nitrate, the chemical in the deadly Beirut explosion?



The huge explosion in the Lebanese capital this week was apparently caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of highly volatile chemical ammonium nitrate.

According to government officials who are still investigating, the stock has been stored in a densely populated community at the city’s port for many years. Ammonium nitrate is commercially available and is commonly used in fertilizers and explosives.

Although some port officials have been placed under house arrest, it was still unclear on Thursday what triggered the explosion, flattening the area and emitting orange smoke spreading across the city, blowing up windows and destroying houses. The explosion was so huge that it was heard nearly 1

40 miles away in Cyprus. As of Thursday, at least 137 people have been killed and more than 5,000 injured.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab stated that ammonium nitrate has been stored in a warehouse for six years without any “precautions” to protect it, which is “unacceptable”.

What is ammonium nitrate and how dangerous is it?

Nathan Lewis, a professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, said: “This is a very common chemical substance. Anyone who uses chemical fertilizers will deal with it regularly and knows nothing about it.” Asking for trouble again, this obviously happened. . “

Lewis said the chemical can be safely stored in its pure form.

On August 25, 2011, a Pakistani businessman held fertilizer containing ammonium nitrate in Multan, Pakistan.Khalid Tanveer/AP file

He said: “On the other hand, whether it is accidental or intentional, if you mix fuel with ammonium nitrate, it will be a very dangerous explosive.” “There is an agreement to store it safely: don’t let it near the fuel, don’t let it Put it in a narrow space.”

Karthish Manthiram, assistant professor of chemical engineering at MIT, said the cause of this dangerous explosion is the rapid expansion of ammonium nitrate from solid to gas.

“The amount of ammonium nitrate is enough to fill half of an Olympic-size swimming pool, and the amount of ammonium nitrate is enough to fill half of the AT&T Stadium or half of the Dallas Cowboys Stadium,” he said. “So this is just a huge increase in numbers.”

How should ammonium nitrate be stored?

Manhiram said that the United States has a number of regulations to store a certain amount of ammonium nitrate.

Manhiram said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Homeland Security both regulate the substance. OSHA stipulates that if your fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate content exceeds 1,000 pounds, you must store it in a one-story building, provide adequate ventilation in the event of a fire, and have enough water and fire hydrants to extinguish potential Fire, he said.

He said that there are other regulations from the Department of Homeland Security, the “Chemical Factory Anti-Terrorism Standards”, which apply to hundreds of chemicals that may be abused in the context of terrorism.

Manhiram said of the amount of materials stored in Beirut: “In the United States, this is undoubtedly a huge security threat, and a completely different approach must be taken.”

Jimmie Oxley, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, said that there are about 200 factories around the world that produce the chemical, and “whether it is used as a fertilizer or an explosive, it is very valuable. Products of”.

She said: “If any type of mining is to be carried out, this material will be used to make explosives.”

Oxley said no manufacturer would store materials like in the Beirut port.

She said these warehouses are usually located near mines, so they are not close to populated centers. Oxley said there are only two factories producing fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate in the southern United States and in the middle of large residential areas.

Have there been any incidents involving ammonium nitrate before?

In the past, this chemical not only participated in terrorist attacks, but also caused hundreds of deaths.

Manhiram said: “The United States has faced certain disasters a long time ago.”

In 1947, more than 2,000 tons of chemicals exploded on a cargo ship docked at the port of Texas City, Texas, killing at least 581 people.

In the same year, in Brest, France, a Norwegian ship carrying about 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 29 people.

He said: “These are one of many early events that led to the emergence of regulations.” “With more than 70 years of experience in handling such chemicals, I think there is really no good reason for this to happen.”

Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City with two tons of ammonium nitrate in 1995, killing 168 people. The bomb was also used in the 1970 University of Wisconsin-Madison campus bombing, killing one person and injuring many others.

Mansiram said: “Almost every day, it seems that this is an innocent molecule, because it is a kind of fertilizer, which sounds like a certain way to be harmless.” Such incidents can completely change a person’s View. “

What is the source of the 2,750 tons of chemicals in Beirut?

Ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut in the fall of 2013 on the Russian-owned cargo ship Rhosus (then captain Boris Prokoshev) told NBC News. He said this was on the way from the port of Batumi on the Black Sea in Georgia to Mozambique, where Mozambique used it as fertilizer.

Prokoshiv said it stopped in Beirut but was seized for security reasons because it was overloaded and listed.

Speaking of weight, he said: “This ship cannot bear it.”

The captain and representative of the Russian Seamen’s Union, Natalia Sokolova, stated that the Russian owner of the ship, Igor Grechushkin, had abandoned the ship and refused Pay the crew for docking fees, fines, and even salary and food. In a dispute with the owner.

NBC News tried but failed to reach Grechushkin for comment.

Sokolova said: “Beirut’s port authorities will not allow them to give up the ship carrying this kind of cargo.” “Finally, the court seized the ship to sell the ship to repay the owner’s debt, and the port agent found that the local people had unloaded it. After the cargo was off, the crew went home.”

The Governor of Beirut Province, Marwan Abboud, supported this statement and told the country’s LBCI television station that the chemical was stored in the port in accordance with a “judicial order” and that “no one has a decision to delete it. Responsibility.”

Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told reporters after inspecting the port on Wednesday: “Whoever is where, he must be held accountable.” He added that the investigation will take up to five days.




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