Then, as now, witnesses filmed apocalyptic, almost surreal footage showing the scale of the inferno. The images coming out of Beirut are also horribly reminiscent of the destruction inflicted on the Chinese city of Tianjin by a 2015 warehouse disaster that killed more than 170 people and left hundreds injured. “I think that’s what’s happened here,” said da Silva. Ammonium Nitrate is used by the military around the world as an explosive as well as in terrorist activities like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, killing 168 people. The scale of the damage — from the epicenter of the explosion at the port of Beirut to the windows blown out kilometers (miles) away — resembles other blasts involving the chemical compound commonly used … Cell phone videos also show the shockwave and dust cloud rushing through the portside buildings, leaving behind scenes of carnage in the Lebanese capital. The deadly Lebanon blast has called into question the safety of large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate in Australia. Though Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, estimates it’s probably closer to 400 tons. But the compound can contribute to explosions because it belongs to a chemical class known as oxidizers. If the 2,700-tonne figure is accurate, that would make the ammonium nitrate explosion larger than the 1947 Texas City Disaster, when a consignment of 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate … 2020 National Geographic Partners, LLC. Look closely at footage of downtown Beirut, and you can see the ground warp and buckle just after the blast erupted from the warehouse on August 4. It is predominantly used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertilizer. Why we will not forgive the men who did this to Beirut, Full report: Huge explosion rocks Lebanese capital, ‘We’re cursed’: shock and despair in Beirut as explosion devastates city, 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killed more than 170 people and left hundreds injured, The majority of those killed were firefighters. Ammonium Nitrate, Which Caused Beirut Blast, Has a Bloodied Past With Several Industrial Accidents. By contrast, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 had a yield of at least 13,000 tons of TNT. The deadly explosion in Beirut has been blamed on thousands of tonnes of the chemical used in fertilisers and explosives, Tue 4 Aug 2020 21.59 EDT World. However, da Silva said, it ignites only under the right circumstances, and these are difficult to achieve. The chemicals reportedly have been sitting by the docks since 2013. The devastating explosion in Beirut should be a wake-up call for countries on the dangers of ammonium nitrate, which caused the blast, experts say. There are also longer-term effects to consider. All ammonium nitrate plants produce an aqueous ammonium nitrate solution through the reaction of ammonia and nitric acid in a neutralizer. If the ammonium nitrate in Beirut was stored in wooden or cardboard containers, it would have made the substance incredibly flammable, says Jimmie Oxley, a chemist at the University of Rhode Island. Given the reported amount, Oxley hypothesizes that a vehicle must have been used to carry the compound inside, and that could have contaminated it with oil or gasoline. An explosion of ammonium nitrate was responsible for the worst industrial accident in US history in 1947. Firefighters who rushed to the scene reportedly attempted to extinguish the initial blaze with water – only to inadvertently exacerbate the situation because of the presence of hazardous flammable chemicals. It is not used as an explosive on its own, rather it is an oxidiser and makes a fire more intense, according to Gabriel da Silva, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne. I was bloodied and dazed. Documents unearthed by Al Jazeera say the ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut aboard a Russian-owned cargo ship after the vessel experienced mechanical problems at sea. 4 Aug, 2020 10:56 PM Quick Read. © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society, © 2015- “As I … Nearby stores of ammonium nitrate then caught fire and exploded in the major port city, which lies 110km (70 miles) south-east of the capital Beijing. Measured using this method, onlookers estimated the blast was roughly equivalent to 400 to 3,000 tons of TNT, an explosive material that’s also used as a unit to measure the destructiveness of explosions. Lebanon was already dealing with political and financial woes, due in part to the Syrian migration crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Two days later, the death toll rose to at least 130 people with another 5,000 injured. Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical which is used mainly as an agricultural fertiliser. Last modified on Thu 13 Aug 2020 11.31 EDT. Compared to most combustible materials, ammonium nitrate itself is not exceptionally explosive. Given that these back-of-the-envelope calculations come with a wide margin of error, the estimate is consistent with the 2,750 tons that Lebanese officials say was stored by the port. Ammonium nitrate is formed when ammonia gas is combined with liquid nitric acid. Annually, the world produces and stores enormous amounts of ammonium nitrate—more than 20 million tons in 2017. Fireworks and ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited a massive explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, experts and videos of the blast suggest. In his statement on Thursday, Rifi said he told Sawwan that quantities from the ammonium nitrate shipment had been used by the Syrian regime and … The ensuing explosion killed some 600 people, including everyone on the dock and ship. The more ammonium nitrate… Why Beirut’s ammonium nitrate blast was so devastating. In the Beirut explosion, the resulting shockwave moved faster than the speed of sound; cell phone videos show the impact washing over the city a few seconds before a sonic boom rumbles. “Ammonium nitrate does not degrade with time under normal storage conditions,” he says. Seventy-five years later, National Geographic revisits the elusive horror of Hiroshima. (Seventy-five years later, National Geographic revisits the elusive horror of Hiroshima.). Moreover, the decomposition of ammonium nitrate can create byproducts known as nitrogen oxides, which are known to cause respiratory distress. Lebanese authorities are blaming the incident on more than 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a substance commonly used in fertilizers as well as in explosives for mining and construction projects. Approximately 60 percent of the ammonium nitrate produced in the U. S. is sold as a solid product. Beirut rescuers give up after sensors gave false hopes of more survivors, A city in need of miracles: few glimmers of hope in Beirut's reconstruction effort, Possible sign of life detected under Beirut rubble weeks after blast, Beirut explosion: FBI to take part in Lebanon investigation, Beirut blast: judge questions security chiefs as third minister resigns, Beirut explosion: protests outside parliament call for fall of government, Lebanon information minister quits in first cabinet resignation since blast, Time for a full clearout. “You need extreme circumstances to set off an explosion,” he said. “Plastics, for example, paint, and other organic materials that completely or partially burned—all the building materials that became dust.”, The deadly history of ammonium nitrate, the explosive linked to the Beirut blast, Photograph by Anwar AMRO, AFP via Getty Images. • This article was amended on 13 August 2020 to remove a reference to the 1947 Texas City explosion causing a “tidal” wave, and to clarify some of the properties of ammonium nitrate. Share on Twitter. It remains unclear what caused the chemical to ignite. “All kinds of other materials probably ignited and burned,” says Beaudoin. The explosion on 4 August destroyed buildings across Beirut. Any carbon-rich fuel—paper, cardboard, or even sugar—can pair with ammonium nitrate to produce more intense energy. When something burns, it requires oxygen—that’s why fire extinguishers can easily put out flames by smothering them. Even a small amount of contamination would have made the ammonium nitrate more likely to detonate. With such a powerful blast, ammonium nitrate has been used by armies around the world as an explosive. But for the compound to figure in an explosion of this magnitude, chemists and explosives experts say a lot has to go wrong. What leveled Beirut on Tuesday sounds eerily similar to descriptions of a massive 1947 explosion in Texas City, Texas. Reconstructing exactly what went wrong in Beirut will be difficult, but Chavez says officials should look for evidence of improper storage, confinement, contamination, lack of ventilation, and potential sources of ignition. Such was the force of the Tianjin explosions that they registered as small earthquakes. It is also one of the main components in mining explosives. Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who himself was caretaker prime minister when the ammonium nitrate entered the port, said there was a double standard in charging Diab over the blast … The Roseburg Blast: A truck carrying dynamite and 4.5 tons of ammonium nitrate caught … Such investigations may take time. A more likely explanation is that the ammonium nitrate in Beirut was not alone inside the warehouse. “It’s relatively difficult to make pure ammonium nitrate go off unless you add things to it and cook it in a giant fire,” says Davin Piercey, a chemist at Purdue University. “It will oxidize that fuel very rapidly, create a huge amount of gas, and give off a huge amount of heat. Rescuers searched for survivors in Beirut in the morning after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis. Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, said 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded after lying unsecured in a warehouse for six years, tallying with reports that a ship carrying a similar quantity of the chemical had unloaded its cargo at the port in 2013. Available for everyone, funded by readers, Signs of life detected in remains of building by port in Lebanon’s capital were of fellow rescuers, Business is strong for glaziers but the mood among most rescuers and residents is sombre, Search renewed after pulsing signal that may be heartbeat heard under collapsed building, US diplomat David Hale calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into the blast. Oxidizers do the opposite: They increase the amount of oxygen molecules that concentrate in a space, which helps make other substances more flammable. Beirut mayor Marwan Abboud told Agence France-Presse that 300,000 people are unable to return to their homes, as the damage covered half the city and could cost up to $15 billion to repair. It is highly soluble in water and hygroscopic as a solid, although it does not form hydrates. Ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertilizers and bomb making, is a salt made from ammonium and nitric acid, and it is highly explosive. "If the pictures are right, this was something meant to be an oxidizer used with other agents," such as explosives used for mining, he says. Or, this discrepancy might mean that the material inside the warehouse was not pure ammonium nitrate, and some other compound was involved with the blast. While the chemicals in the air should dissipate fairly quickly, lingering pollutants can cause problems later, for example if they acidify rain. Injuries surpassed more than 5,000; the blast destroyed 500 homes and the smoke from it billowed for days. Former public works minister Youssef “Fenianos did not inform me of the presence of the ammonium nitrate at the port and we hold the president of the republic responsible because he is a military man who knows ammonium nitrate’s danger,” Franjieh added. Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound with the chemical formula NH 4 NO 3. It is a white crystalline solid consisting of ions of ammonium and nitrate. Piling up large amounts of ammonium nitrate allows more heat to be contained for longer when a mixture burns. Ammonium nitrate would only explode on its own if its temperature was rapidly raised to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s known to predispose people to the worst effects of respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Nature. Perhaps the closest comparison to Beirut's explosion, in terms of scale, is a blast in Texas City in 1947, which was caused by 2,300 US tons (about 2,087 metric tons) of ammonium nitrate. The August 4 blast that left more than 190 dead was caused by 2,750 tons of the volatile ammonium nitrate that caught fire. What detonated the explosive compound remains unclear—but the Beirut blast is not the first time ammonium nitrate has led to calamity. If the 2,700-tonne figure is accurate, that would make the ammonium nitrate explosion larger than the 1947 Texas City Disaster, when a consignment of 2,300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, killing nearly 500 people. Some internet rumors speculate that because the ammonium nitrate was left to sit in a warehouse for several years, it would have degraded, becoming more volatile and increasingly dangerous over time. The blast created a 4.5-metre (15ft) wave. But David Chavez, an explosives scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, doubts that scenario. All rights reserved. Though ammonium nitrate was first synthesized in 1659 by German chemist Johann Rudolf Glauber, it wasn’t used in explosives until World War I, when weapon makers mixed it with TNT (aka dynamite) to make cheaper bombs. An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port's grain silos and the surrounding area on August 5, 2020, one day after a massive explosion hit the heart of the Lebanese capital. A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4. On the night of 12 August a series of cataclysmic detonations rocked an area of warehouses where large quantities of hazardous chemicals, also including sodium cyanide and potassium nitrate, were being stored, in some cases illegally. The blast registered as magnitude 3.3 on the Richter scale, and caused devastation usually associated with major earthquakes. Beirut explosion: Tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at blast site. The S.S. Grandcamp—carrying ammonium nitrate, fuel, and ammunition—arrived at the Houston-area port with smoke spewing from its cargo hold. The majority of those killed were firefighters, including at least one teenager. Using math pioneered in the 1940s to infer the atomic bomb’s yield, experts can analyze videos of a shockwave to get rough estimates of an explosion’s total energy and how much material blew up. Ammonium nitrate is a common industrial chemical used mainly for fertiliser because it is a good source of nitrogen for plants. Between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate is stored at Orica's Kooragang plant in Newcastle The plant is within 800m of North Stockton residents and 3km of the Newcastle CBD Orica says safe storage of the chemical is strictly regulated and audited Lebanon's Interior Minister said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was in the Beirut blast. Former justice minister and ex-Internal Security Forces head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi said Thursday that he has testified before Judge Fadi Sawwan that Iran had sent the ammonium nitrate shipment that eventually caused the August 4 catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port. “There’s a massive amount of energy given off very quickly,” says Stephen Beaudoin, a chemical engineer also at Purdue University. The blast, which rattled entire buildings and broke glass, was felt across the city. To produce a solid product, the ammonium nitrate solution is concentrated in an evaporator or concentrator. Share on Pinterest. On paper, ammonium nitrate is highly regulated in India. And just five years ago, an estimated 800 tons of ammonium nitrate fueled a warehouse explosion that leveled part of a port in the Chinese city of Tianjin, killing 173. Though Lebanese authorities have said ammonium nitrate was the culprit in the blast, Lewis notes that in many cases commercial explosives are referred to as just this compound even though they contain additives. Credit: Fadel Itani/NurPhoto/Getty . That’s because of the nitrogen oxide air pollutants in it,” he said. Since 1916, the chemical has been responsible for at least 30 disasters, some accidental and some intentional. Indian Regulation For Ammonium Nitrate . Share on Facebook. “If you look at the smoke that came from the blast it’s this kind of blood red colour. Beirut strangers treated me like a … The S.S. Grandcamp —carrying ammonium nitrate, fuel, and ammunition—arrived at the Houston-area port with smoke spewing from its cargo hold. In April 1995, American terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used two tons of the compound in a truck-bomb attack on the Oklahoma City federal building; 168 people were killed. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. The shipment was eventually abandoned, and its cargo moved into the hangar where it remained, despite Lebanese custom officials requesting its disposal on at least six different occasions, according to The New York Times. It is a good source of nitrogen for plants but in the right (or wrong) circumstances it is also highly explosive, as has been seen in the numerous terrifying videos of the Beirut blast which have gone viral. The blast filled Beirut’s air with particulate matter, one of the most common forms of air pollution. Fenianos, caretaker PM Hassan Diab and ex-ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zoaiter have recently been charged with negligence … Add enough of the oxidizer to a fire, and it will trigger an explosion. 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