Is an explosion a chemical change

Explosion in Beirut: what makes ammonium nitrate so dangerous?

According to the Lebanese Prime Minister Hasan Diab, the devastating explosion in Beirut could have been triggered by a very large amount of ammonium nitrate. The material came from a cargo ship that was prevented from continuing from Georgia to Mozambique in 2013 due to deficiencies in Beirut.

An estimated 2,750 tons of the dangerous substance have since been stored in the port of Beirut for years without any security precautions.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is a white, crystalline salt that can be made fairly cheaply from ammonia and nitric acid. It is very easily soluble in water and is mostly used as a nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture, because plants need sufficient nitrogen for growth.

Total destruction in the port of Beirut after the two devastating explosions

When unmixed, ammonium nitrate is harmless, but the crystalline substance is sensitive to heat; at 32.2 degrees Celsius, ammonium nitrate changes its polymorphic phases. That means: The arrangement of the atoms changes and thus the material properties also change.

If ammonium nitrate is close together in very large quantities, it will heat up. If the crowd is very large, it can catch fire. At 170 degrees Celsius, the decomposition begins, producing laughing gas. A strong initial spark causes ammonium nitrate to break down directly into water, nitrogen and oxygen, which explains the enormous explosive power of the salt.

The ammonium nitrate store explosion may have been preceded by a fire in an adjacent area of ​​the port where either fireworks or ammunition were stored.

Use only under safety conditions

In many countries, ammonium nitrate may only be used under strict safety regulations. Because the danger of the material has long been known.

Almost 100 years ago, in 1921, 400 tons of ammonium sulfate nitrate fertilizer exploded in BASF's Oppau ammonia plant in Ludwigshafen. In two explosions in quick succession, 559 people were killed, injured in 1977 and most of the factory was destroyed. The explosion could still be heard in Munich, 300 kilometers away. According to media reports, the pressure wave from Beirut could still be felt in Cyprus, 200 km away.

What exactly triggered the devastating explosion in Tianjin, China in 2015 remains a secret

The pictures from Beirut are also reminiscent of the disastrous chemical accident in the Chinese port city of Tianjin in 2015: 800 tons of ammonium nitrate, along with numerous other substances, are said to have been in a hazardous goods warehouse there. 173 people were killed in the massive explosion and an entire district was destroyed.

In 2013, 14 people died in an ammonium nitrate explosion at West Fertilizer in Texas. In 2001, 31 people died in an ammonium nitrate explosion in Toulouse, France.

Popular explosives for terrorists

In Germany, for example, the use of the substance falls under the Explosives Act. Because various terrorists used the highly explosive, cheap and comparatively easy to obtain material for attacks in the past.

For example, the conspiracy theorist and gun freak Timothy McVeigh used a mixture containing ammonium nitrate for a terrorist attack on a US federal administration building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik also used the chemical compound in a car bomb attack Oslo in 2011.

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    Damage allegedly completely eliminated

    The aerial photo was taken nine months after the chemical accident in the east Chinese port city of Tianjin. The city council said the pollution had been "completely removed". But the cleanup could take years.

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    The place of the accident was the port

    Smoke comes out of the shipping containers at the port of the east Chinese city of Tianjin. First there was a fire in a port warehouse with dangerous chemicals, then there were several explosions. The fireball could be seen from a distance.

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    On the run

    After two explosions, many people take to the streets, like here near the scene of the accident. Little did they know that the accident was caused by toxic chemicals.

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    The day after

    Many houses were damaged by the fire and the force of the detonation. The neighboring warehouse for imported cars was burned down. 3000 people had to be accommodated in emergency shelters.

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    Environmental damage feared

    A few days after the accident, heavy rain set in. It is feared that toxic chemicals could spread faster and get into the soil. 700 tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide were stored on the site where the explosion occurred. The environmental agency advised: "Stay away. Unfortunately, there is no better solution."

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    Huge differences in cyanide concentration

    The city's environmental protection agency reported that a water analysis in the immediate vicinity of the accident site found the concentration of cyanide "356 times" above the limit value. However, the cyanide traces would lie outside the restricted area "below the tolerance threshold."

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    Damaged residents at odds with the authorities

    The high-rise buildings in the immediate vicinity of the explosion site were no longer habitable. The owners took to the streets and asked the government to buy back their apartments at the original purchase price. The city did this.

  • One year after the devastating explosions in Tianjin

    Proceedings against officials

    After the accident, the Tianjin Procuratorate opened 49 criminal cases and 123 disciplinary cases within the party. It was found that in exchange for large bribes, the officials condoned illegal storage of chemicals.

    Author: Hao Gui