Ammonia: Fertiliser to be handled with care

April 18, 2013
Smoke rises in the distance about half a mile from the West Fertilizer Company April 18, 2013 in West, Texas.

Fertiliser manufacturing has been implicated in a string of disasters prior to the deadly explosion on Wednesday that wrecked a facility in Texas.

The prime chemical in the fertiliser business is .

It is delivered to the soil as a colourless liquefied gas called anhydrous ("without water") ammonia, comprising 82 percent nitrogen to 18 percent hydrogen, which is absorbed on contact with the earth. Its chemical formula is NH3.

An alternative form of ammonia delivery is in granulated form as ammonium nitrate, or NH4NO3, which derives from NH3 combined with nitric acid.

Both chemicals are stable but burn at if initiated by another source. NH3 requires additional special handling because of the risk of skin burns from exposure to the deep-chilled liquid.

NH4NO3, a soluble white powder that is readily soluble in water, becomes explosive beyond 290 degrees Celsius (554 degrees Fahrenheit)—a trigger than can come from lightning or a fire triggered by an electrical spark.

But an explosion only occurs when it is stored in large volumes, causing a .

Ammonium nitrate is used in primitive fertiliser bombs of the kind used in the 1995 on a US federal building in Oklahoma City, and in Oslo in 2011 by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.

Accidents involving NH4NO3 include a blast at the AZF plant in Toulouse in 2001 where 300 tonnes of the chemical were stored, killing 31 people, and in the port of Texas City in 1947 aboard a ship laden with 2,300 tonnes of it, killing nearly 600 people.

The causes of the AZF accident have never been fully clarified. Investigators suspect accidental mixing between NH4NO3 and a chloride.

In 2004, 161 people were killed and 1,300 injured in Ryongchon, , in an explosion involving train wagons carrying ammonium nitrate. Official said the cause was an that was severed during shunting.

As for NH3, the chemical becomes potentially explosive when high concentrations—between 16 to 25 percent of the atmosphere at local volumes—are ignited by a heat source greater than 1,204 F (651 C).

Explore further: Nitrate fertiliser wasted on sugarcane

Related Stories

Nitrate fertiliser wasted on sugarcane

May 9, 2011

( -- Rising nitrogen fertiliser application to sugarcane crops globally and the potential for this fertiliser to be leached from soil and lost to the atmosphere have been highlighted in a new study led by The ...

Nanotechnology points the way to greener pastures

March 25, 2011

Nourishing crops with synthetic ammonia (NH3) fertilizers has increasingly pushed agricultural yields higher, but such productivity comes at a price. Over-application of this chemical can build up nitrate ion (NO3–) ...

Floods wash chemical barrels into China river

July 29, 2010

Floodwaters have washed 3,000 barrels of explosive chemicals into a major waterway in northeastern China, state media said Thursday, much more than originally reported.

Tracing nitrate in watersheds

March 15, 2013

Plants need nitrogen to grow, and nitrate is a common fertilizer ingredient, but high levels of nitrate contamination in drinking water sources can cause health problems. It is generally known that nitrogen flows through ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Apr 18, 2013
Don't forget the Oppau explosion.


It seems we just don't learn that large amounts of ammonia and ammonium components should not be stored in one spot.
5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2013
Lack of sufficient Government Regulation in Texas (no surprise there) magnified the loss of life from this event.

Only in Texas, and in the most backward towns of Mexico and India would such a large cache of Ammonia based fertilizer be stored so close to homes.

It is Pure, Unadulterated, Republican Stupidity.
1 / 5 (2) Apr 18, 2013
Excellent discussion.

Does anyone know if this plant made and/or stored ammonium nitrate?
not rated yet Apr 19, 2013
Just to complete the string of coincidences all of which occurred around this date, Texas City, April 16th 1947, Oklahoma bombing, April 19th 1995, and dare I say it the Boston bombers may have used Ammonium nitrate.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.