Goal 13: Climate Action
WHAT IS AMMONIUM NITRATE?
And how is Beirut’s devastating explosion linked to climate change?
By hannah rochell
6 august 2020
The world is still reeling from the massive blast in Beirut on Tuesday that killed at least 137 people and injured thousands. It’s believed to have been caused by a shipment of agricultural fertiliser that was stored in the city’s port since as far back as 2013 without appropriate safety precautions, in spite of repeated warnings to the Port Authorities from Lebanon’s Director of Customs and others.
The fertiliser in question - ammonium nitrate - has a chequered past, having been the source of previous explosions and causing detrimental effects to the environment if overused. So why do we use it? Here’s everything you need to know about this artificial substance.
Nitrate is great for plants
Farmers have been using nitrates to improve their crops for as long as farming has been around. Whenever a plant is taken from the ground, the nutrients in the soil need to be replenished and nitrates are one of the key things that plants need to grow. Soil fertility can be achieved naturally through crop rotation - peas and beans have nitrogen fixing bacteria in their roots which benefits whatever is planted after them - or by using manure or compost. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that ammonium nitrate - a synthetic fertiliser - was created to be used on an industrial scale. It was realised that the increasing population during the Industrial Revolution, who were moving away from farms and into cities, would need a cheap and easy solution to replenishing soil with nitrate in order to be fed.
Who figured out the answer?
It was a German chemist called Fritz Haber who developed the process of synthesizing nitrate in a high-temperature energy-intensive process. Without this discovery, it would not have been possible to scale up farming to the industrial levels we see today - and since today we waste ⅓ of all the food we produce, we really need to reassess those levels.
It is intrinsically linked with war
We have always known that ammonium nitrate can cause massive explosions; in fact, Fritz Haber’s discovery fuelled the US and European munitions industry during WWII. By the end of the war the US had 10 factories dedicated to producing nitrate for the purpose of making bombs. These switched to providing fertilisers for the country’s booming industrial corn industry once the war was over. Ammonium nitrate is also used as an explosive in the mining industry.
Safe storage is vital
Ammonium nitrate is considered relatively safe if stored correctly, but incredibly dangerous when it’s not. Intense heat can trigger an explosion, and storing it anywhere near fuel is a very bad idea. When you consider that when used as an explosive device it is considered a weapon of mass destruction, it pays not to be negligible when dealing with ammonium nitrate.
This is not the first accident
Since its invention, ammonium nitrate has been the cause of some of the world’s worst accidents. In 1921, 565 people were killed at the Oppau plant in Germany during an explosion of ammonium sulphate and nitrate fertiliser, and the state of Texas has experienced two accidents - one in 2013 that killed 14 people and a far deadlier one in 1947 that killed 567 people, injured 5,000 and caused a tidal wave.
It’s bad for the environment
Ammonium nitrate is often overused, which has far more serious and far-reaching effects than simply wasting it. It can run off soil into waterways, contaminating drinking water and turning rivers and lakes into “dead zones’ - areas low in oxygen that can’t support life. It can also evaporate into the air where it forms nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas around 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide which also damages the ozone layer.
Is there an alternative for farmers?
The short answer is, there has to be. Scientists estimate that at our current rates of soil destruction, we will not have enough topsoil to feed the population within as little as 50 years. Restoring natural fertility to our soil will not only help to protect our ability to grow food, but will aid the restoration of crucial biodiversities and the water cycle. By switching to regenerative agriculture practices such as holistic grazing, which mimics the natural behaviour of herds, and perennial crops like the new grain Kernza, which can be grown year-round providing strong root systems that prevent soil erosion and build soil quality, we can reduce the use of synthetic fertilisers and the myriad negatives that come with them.