Ammonium nitrate

Nasty stuff if it does explode. Which is what just happened to Beirut, couple of thousand tonnes of the stuff. Happened at Texas City and also, I think, in Halifax in WWII? Or thereabouts. One of the stories of which is that anyone happening to be looking out the window as the shockwave arrived is blind…..for obvious reasons.

36 thoughts on “Ammonium nitrate”

  1. Ammonium nitrate? There’d be a hole in the ground and most of the dock gone. That blast was directed upwards. The grain silos next door remain standing.

  2. Halifax (Nova Scotia) was a ship loaded with TNT, just like the SS Richard Montgomery currently lying off Sheerness.

  3. Bloke in North Dorset

    @Will,

    The BBC has been writing stories like this for years. Those headlines, sub headers and other headers in the story aren’t written to inform readers, they’re written to attract search engines and clicks.

  4. Nearly 3,000 tonnes of AN? That’s a big bang! You definitely want to duck when you see that as, as Tim rightly points out, the shock wave is not good for your health.

  5. Wasn’t ammonium nitrate the go-to for Jihadi suicide bombers in the UK 10 years ago? I seem to recall news stories about vibrant youths arrested for buying large amounts of fertiliser and diesel fuel and storing them in lock-ups

  6. @Ljh, the satellite photo this morning does show a large hole, though as it’s on the edge of the water it’s not as big as it might have been.

  7. Bloke in North Dorset

    Diogenes,

    Paddy PIRA was making fertiliser bombs long before the Jihadists came on the scene.

  8. The bombing by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City was a AN + Nitromethane and AN + Diesel bomb, made a pretty decent bang even though only in a smallish truck – around 4-5 tonnes.

    If you look at the videos, a couple appear to show that there was a significant explosion that set off the AN an instant later, although that may be reading a bit much into it.

  9. The need for speed + ignorance does lead to some media howlers, in this case the Daily Mail:

    “Experts say a fire in Beirut started after a spark from a welder likely ignited the highly reactive chemical, causing a blast the equivalent to three million kilotons of TNT, killing at least 100 people and leaving thousands more injured.”

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8594979/Beirut-blast-survivors-sift-rubble-bodies-death-toll-continues-rise.html

    3,000 megatons of TNT, being twice the entire global nuclear arsenal, would have resolved all of the current geopolitical disputes of the Eastern Mediterranean and those of most of the Middle East.

  10. Aluminium nitrate isn’t especially dangerous by itself. Was some quantity already weaponised?

    The preceding kinetic activity looked like either fireworks or small arms ammunition going off. This may be just negligent storage discipline but it’s hard to imagine a vast stash of aluminium nitrate not attracting the interest of the various armed factions in the area. It’s not hard to imagine the aluminium nitrate being deposited there by Iran (with a nod from the Lebanese) for use by Hezbollah.

  11. Ta Julia, but note the two large ships docked adjacent to the next warehouse appear intact and properly docked.. the second warehouse is flattened but not blown away. I expected more lateral damage in the immediate area given what the shockwave did to structures much further away.

  12. My bomb has a first name, and it’s A-N-F-O.

    Yes, Timothy McVeigh used an ANFO bomb. 1,500 pounds, as I recall. They changed regulations on fertilizer purchases in the U.S. as a result.

    I got curious and looked up AN explosions in history. Wiki had some good stories under ‘ammonium nitrate disasters.’

    Amazing factoid: the Texas City explosion killed people in airplanes! Two small planes had their wings knocked off by the blast.

    ‘After early confusion about the cause, Lebanon’s prime minister blamed the ignition of more than 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored in the area. An investigation is ongoing.’

    Improperly stored ??? How would he know? His family in on the deal? And if he knows, why is an investigation ongoing?

    Based on pix and my knowledge, which is limited, it appears to me that only a portion of it exploded. Much of it just burned. I.e., I think the blast could have been much bigger.

  13. @ Gamecock
    A spokesman for the Port of Beirut told the BBC (among others) that the Ammonium Nitrate had been there for six years following a Court Order and despite instructions to move it or export it nothing had happened.

    So it was “improperly stored” because orders had been made to remove it and they had not been obeyed.

    The real question is “why did it blow up yesterday after sitting there quietly for six years?”

  14. So Much For Subtlety

    ANFO is a perfectly normal blasting agent used in mines all over the world. It is cheap. It is relatively inert. Generally it is safe.

    Unlike something like nitroglycerine which caused a massive change in US laws when someone posted a friend some. Long story short, San Francisco got a new General Post Office building.

    It looks like the government seized this AN, stored it and forgot about it.

  15. The book “Great Mambo Chickens” has some interesting AN examples from the Recreational Explosives Society (Texas, of course). They observed that it’s hard to keep enough AN in one place long enough for the bang, it tends to self-disassemble when one part goes off.
    But they’d been reading about the Fatman, and the need for implosion, so off they went to experiment on explosive confinement…

    I suspect only a small part of the 3000 tons actually exploded in one go, there will have been smaller explosions and fires, much would have been dispersed.

    But you can always trust the man from the Gov. to store such things safely.

  16. “ANFO is a perfectly normal blasting agent used in mines all over the world.”

    Yes, SMFS. It is well known amongst sportsmen in the upper mid west. Cut open a bag of fertilizer, pour fuel oil on it, stick a blasting cap in it. Instant duck pond.

  17. SS Richard Montgomery
    I used to be able to see the top of the masts from my desk when we were allowed in the office. JuliaM could probably pin down the location. I miss that panoramic view of the Thames Estuary.

  18. PJF
    August 5, 2020 at 10:36 am

    3,000 megatons of TNT, being twice the entire global nuclear arsenal, would have resolved all of the current geopolitical disputes of the Eastern Mediterranean and those of most of the Middle East.

    Indeed, it would have also solved global warming, the India/Pakistan political dispute, North Korea, Covid 19, etc.

    Extinction level events have the silver lining of streamlining all the worlds problems.

  19. @Tim W

    anyone happening to be looking out the window as the shockwave arrived is blind…..for obvious reasons

    You’ve never been close to a bomb then?

    Not obvious to me as unless very close the shockwave passes creating a partial vacuum which causes windows to explode out not implode in

    Stormont Hotel bomb ~1993 was ~200lb car bomb, front crossmember of car flew 1/4 mile over house and landed in front garden. All rear windows exploded out

    @Ljh
    +1
    Ammonium nitrate: fertiliser + diesel was favourite for car bombs

    2,750 Tonnes is 1/8 of Hiroshima. Beirut lucky it wasn’t in a strong building as most burned, after explosion

    I’d say first explosion vacuum created an aerosol from top of pile, exploded and heat crystallised & ignited surface of rest

    @PJF
    DM recruiting from Guardian again?

    PS Pcar made gunpowder when a young teen & packed in Birds Custard tins (saltpetre from pharmacy close to school) – fun times

  20. Gamecock also made black powder 50+ years ago. Saltpeter, sulfur, charcoal. I could never grind it down fine enough to make anything useful (read: bomb). Fun to burn, though.

  21. Yes, teenage pyro exploits. In my case a paint-tin full of Al + Fe2O3 ignited with a magnesium ribbon. Lovely silver fire-fountain & molten iron running around!

    I wondered about the sequencing of the Beirut explosion. There was a white/grey cloud with flames at the bottom, then a column of NO2 (the red stuff), followed immediately by the shock wave cloud. So I’m thinking the red cloud was the result of deflagration, followed by the final detonation of a lot of the stuff. As the detonation flame-front is faster than the speed of sound in the material, would it not all go before the pile could disassemble?

  22. If there were grin silos next to the blast they are lucky the fires didn’t cause the grain silos to go up as well, that can be nasty

  23. @Gamecock, TG

    I used powdered everything in mix, then cheated a bit by using a small “banger” as detonator. After first few explosions tried a 1 Litre paint tin once – a tad too loud and potentially lethal if I hadn’t been in full face helmet & MX gear

    Birds Custard tin thinking started after P6 science teacher showed us how to make a stove from one by filling with sand & petrol, then extinguish by putting lid on

    @Ummmm
    You’re thinking of flour dust not grain

  24. So Much For Subtlety

    Ummmm August 5, 2020 at 10:42 pm – “If there were grin silos next to the blast they are lucky the fires didn’t cause the grain silos to go up as well, that can be nasty”

    Grain does not readily explode. But dust does. And grain silos are some times full of what is essentially flour suspended in the air. This is what is dangerous. But it does not happen all the time because you need a good mix of oxygen and some sort of carbon molecule that will burn.[1] Dust tends to settle and that does not provide enough surface area for an explosion – not enough oxygen mixed with the flour. So a dust explosion in a silo requires some sort of special circumstance or really poor upkeep.

    [1] Lots of things will explode if provided with the right supply of oxygen. The smokeless revolution in artillery began when someone dropped his apron in some nitric acid and discovered cotton will explode if treated roughly. The interesting question is what *won’t* explode if dipped in liquid oxygen. Sugar does – or at least it turns up on TV a lot and if we can’t trust Hollywood who can we trust?

    The V-1 was powered by a pulse jet engine that supposedly could run on coal dust. I wonder if it could run on flour.

    Link on ANFO:

    https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/explosives-anfo.htm

    The only flout explosion I know in literature is in Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment. Not sure if it would have worked though. Never thought to try it.

  25. @SMFS
    Lots of examples of flour mills exploding in real life. This one 5 years ago for example https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-33566064

    Any dust in the right concentration can be very nasty. Also 5 years ago in Taiwan “Staff of an outdoor “color powder party” sprayed clouds of corn starch towards the participants, which ignited. The fire lasted 40 seconds and burned 508 people, killing 15 and leaving 199 in critical condition.” That was just a fire not an explosion becuase it was outdoors, had it been indoors it probably would have been a bang.

  26. The icing sugar plant at Tate and Lyle in the 70s was built like a firework factory, many small bays, curtain doors and windows. Icing sugar is made by milling granulated sugar. Lots of opportunities for airborne sugar dust and hence frequent explosions, with an overwhelming smell of toffee afterwards!

  27. PJF ammonium not aluminium.

    Just tried lots of combos in attempt to blame auto-correct but nothing. Maybe it’s LEDs? Help me. Help me

  28. @SMFS

    First Uni I attended used coal dust boilers

    Carbon is a strange thing: carbon containing things burn, but carbon doesn’t
    Chubb sell/sold a Graphite (100% Carbon) fire extinguisher to extinguish Lithium fires

    @PJF

    Help me – Aluminium is a common rocket fuel. Also used for cylinder heads to contain petrol explosions

  29. Beirut Explosion
    Debate on the BBC about whether the explosion was racist. Not enough white people killed apparently

    Good analysis before facts emerged:
    “Fire pressurises then ruptures a storage tank sending a dense cloud of LPG above Upper Explosive Limit into the air. The cloud dilutes with air, coming below the UEL, meets flame and explodes.

    Effectively a fuel/air explosive”

  30. So Much For Subtlety

    Pcar August 6, 2020 at 8:58 pm – “Carbon is a strange thing: carbon containing things burn, but carbon doesn’t”

    Carbon does a very good impression of something that will explode as well as burn. Gunpowder is, after all, carbon in the form of charcoal.

    ANFO is a type of Sprengel explosive – Hermann Sprengel described them in the 19th century. They are usually a liquid and a solid that are mixed just before they are used. One of the biggest deliberate explosions before the nuclear programme (when the US military set off 50 tons of explosives at aw time) was when they blew all the rocks blocking the Hudson river to small bits – 300,000 pounds used in one explosion. But you can make several of those with charcoal and a good oxidiser.

    “Aluminium is a common rocket fuel. Also used for cylinder heads to contain petrol explosions”

    All coming down to surface area. Aluminium is safe in a block but a problem as dust.

    Pcar August 7, 2020 at 12:27 am – “Debate on the BBC about whether the explosion was racist. Not enough white people killed apparently”

    The Lebanese not White enough?

  31. Gunpowder is, after all, carbon in the form of charcoal.

    Sort of. The charcoal is the fuel, and is usually around 15% by weight. It also needs a supply of oxygen, provided by the saltpetre (75%); and the addition of sulphur (10%) lowers the ignition temperature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *