Ammonium nitrate explosion history and scientific facts
The explosion that immediately turned the Lebanese capital Beirut into a heap of dust could be the biggest explosion one would ever see in a lifetime. The simultaneous eruption of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) was stored in Beirut’s port for six years.
Ammonium nitrate, although highly violent in an explosion, is mainly used worldwide for agrochemical fertilizer production. Ammonium nitrate is a major constituent of chemical fertilizers. It provides ammonia, phosphorus, and potassium to plants as a nitrogen source, one of the three essential elements.
Ammonium nitrate is a stable compound. It does not react as fuel in a fire. But it can explode very violently if it comes in direct contact with fire or any other flammable material. This is why ammonium nitrate is mixed with fuel and used as an explosive in the mining industry.
Some extinguishers use sand to extinguish the fire by stopping the connection between the combustible material and the atmosphere and stopping the fire from receiving the oxygen it needs.
What ammonium nitrate does is supply this oxygen gas. Ammonium nitrate provides a higher concentration of oxygen to fire than is normally found in the atmosphere.
At temperatures above 170 Fahrenheit, solid ammonium nitrate breaks down into various nitrogen oxides and water vapor, releasing very high energy. A large explosion is due to the high energy released by this dissociation. The main gas emitted in this way is nitrogen dioxide. This gas is a red gas with an unpleasant odor. After the Lebanese explosion, nitrogen dioxide was released into the sky as red smoke. This gas is not so toxic to humans. But this gas can affect the functioning of the human respiratory system. Nitrogen dioxide is a pollutant that is constantly added to the atmosphere during urban air pollution.
This is not the first time ammonium nitrate has exploded.
An explosion similar to the one in Beirut, Lebanon, occurred in 2015 in Tianjin, Beijing, China. At the time, the eruption was 800 tons, but it claimed 173 lives.
Ammonium nitrate also caused the most powerful industrial explosion in American history. On April 16, 1947, when a stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored in ships anchored in the port of Texas exploded.
The crash, also known as the “Texas Tragedy,” was the deadliest explosion since the Nagasaki atomic bombing.
Although the cause is not clear, the most widely accepted opinion is that a fire was caused by a cigarette thrown by a ship’s crew.
The French merchant ship “Grand Camp,” which was filled with ammonium nitrate, first caught fire and then exploded 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in it. Following this initial explosion, the High Flyer, anchored in the nearby seas, also exploded. With another 961 tons of ammonium nitrate in it. Officers from the High Flyer ship immediately tried to evacuate the ship but concluded that their ship would explode due to the Groundcamp fire. The result was that both ships exploded in a chain explosion. The explosion was not limited to two ships. Many oil tankers on land also explored and exploded.
The blast killed at least 581 people and injured 5,000 others. Also, more than 2,000 people who had lost their homes due to the destruction of 500 houses in the surrounding area were housed in refugee camps. And a thousand buildings were destroyed.
Of the dead, only 405 were identified. Of the 63 unidentified, 113 are still missing.
As a result of the explosion, an anchor weighing 1.8 metric tons of the Grand Camp camp was thrown about 2.6 km and fell to the ground, forming a crater ten feet deep. The same anchor is now housed in a park with memorabilia. The other anchor weighing 4.5 metric tons on the same ship was found half a mile away.
The eruption also caused waves about 15 feet high to travel 160 kilometers. Also, even the planes flying in the surrounding airspace had been thrown away.
After the Grand Camp ship explosion, about 5760 metric tons of steel were thrown into the sky at high speed with the people on board.
The blast turned the Texas Harbor into a heap of ashes, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in financial damage.
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