Spotlight on Safety: The Beirut Explosion — Hazards of Ammonium Nitrate Storage | AIChE

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Spotlight on Safety: The Beirut Explosion — Hazards of Ammonium Nitrate Storage


On August 4, a massive explosion rocked the Port of Beirut and much of the surrounding area. Windows were broken as far as 15 miles away, several hundred people were killed, and more than 300,000 lost their homes. The reported cause of the explosion was 2,750 metric tons (m.t.) of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound often used as a fertilizer, stored for six years in a warehouse.

While the events leading up to the blast remain unclear, we know that when ammonium nitrate is stored in large quantities, fires and interactions with organic material can have devastating consequences. Although the chemical is designated as an oxidizer by the United Nations (U.N.) and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, if the amount of combustible substances mixed into ammonium nitrate is higher than 0.2% (which can be caused by an external event like a fire), it can become an explosive. Therefore, long-term storage of the material presents safety concerns.

What happened in Beirut is not a singular occurrence; between 20 and 30 major catastrophic explosions involving ammonium nitrate have been reported since the chemical was first used as a commercial product at the beginning of the 20th century,...

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