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What is ammonium nitrate, which caused the massive explosion in Beirut?

Topics Covered: Disaster management.

What is ammonium nitrate, which caused the massive explosion in Beirut?


The catastrophic explosion at Beirut port on August 4 was caused by over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate kept in storage for over six years.

What is it?

In its pure form, ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is a white, crystalline chemical which is soluble in water.

Where all is it used?

  • It is the main ingredient in the manufacture of commercial explosives used in mining and construction.
  • It is a common chemical ingredient of agricultural fertilisers.
  • It is also the main component of the explosive composition known as ANFO — ammonium nitrate fuel oil.

When it can cause a fire hazard?

Pure ammonium nitrate is not an explosive on its own. It is classified as an oxidiser (Grade 5.1) under the United Nations classification of dangerous goods.

  • If mixed with ingredients like fuel or some other contaminants, or because of some other external factors, it can be very explosive.

The explosion of large storage can happen primarily in two ways:

  1. By some type detonation or initiation because the storage comes in contact with explosive mixture.
  2. Due to a fire which starts in the ammonium nitrate store because of the heat generated due to the oxidation process at large scale.

How is it regulated in India?

  • In India, its usage is regulated as per The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012, under The Explosives Act, 1884.
  • The rules also make storage of ammonium nitrate in large quantities in populated areas illegal in India.
  • For the manufacture of ammonium nitrate, an Industrial licence is required under the Industrial Development and Regulation Act, 1951.
  • A license under the Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012 is also required for any activity related to ammonium nitrate.

Health effects:

An ammonium nitrate explosion produces massive amounts of nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) is a red, bad-smelling gas.

It can irritate the respiratory system. Elevated levels of these pollutants are particularly concerning for people with respiratory conditions.


Prelims Link:

  1. What is Ammonium Nitrate?
  2. Where is it used?
  3. How is it regulated in India?
  4. How is it defined under The Ammonium Nitrate Rules, 2012?
  5. UN classification of dangerous goods.

Mains Link:

Discuss how ammonium nitrate is regulated in India and why are these regulations necessary.


Sources: the Hindu, Indian Express.