AMMONIUM NITRATE // A fertilizer or an explosive?

in StemSocial2 months ago

Author: @madridbg, through Power Point 2010, using public domain images.

Welcome to all those readers who make life on the #hive platform, especially to the members of the @stemsocial, communities, who have shown an extraordinary commitment to the dissemination of topics of academic excellence, supporting publications associated with chemistry, botany, engineering, mathematics, among others. This demonstrates that they are communities with a high degree of interdisciplinarity where articles with a scientific approach are valued by the members who make life in these communities.

In this sense, continuing with the contributions associated with the chemical fundamentals and their applicability, through the publication we will address what is related to ammonium nitrate referring to its use as a fertilizer and explosive and where we will chemically substantiate the dual behavior of this substance.


In previous publications, we referred to the use of ammonia as a raw material for nitrogen fertilizers, where we studied the set of reactions that take place to produce the aforementioned substances, which are indispensable in the preparation of soils that will be used for the cultivation of crops that will be the livelihood of large societies.

We also explain, that there are different varieties of fertilizers which depends on the type of element that conforms it, among which stand out the sulfur, phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizers. Where we can denote that most of the elements present in this type of substances are non-metallic and which are determinant at the biological and environmental level as they participate or are present in different systems of the planet, despite being such a small number if we compare them with the remaining 93 elements of the periodic table.

Therefore, in the present publication we will fix our attention on the element nitrogen, as the main component of nitrogen fertilizers and where we will emphasize the use of ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3), we will study its dual behavior and the action of this substance in the presence of other products of our daily life, in addition, we will address the influence of temperature on it.


In this section of the publication, we will make a basic tour of some of the properties exhibited by the non-metallic elements, knowing that there are only 25 of these in the periodic table and where nitrogen and phosphorus are the maximum representatives of this small group, an award that is attributed to its usefulness and large number of applications.

In this sense and in general terms, non-metallic elements are characterized by being poor conductors of electricity and heat, do not present shiny layers, can be found in the three states of matter at room temperature, understood as solid, liquid and gaseous.

Similarly, they have a marked or higher electronegativity compared to the metallic elements, the compounds resulting from this type of substances tend to be ionic and soluble in water.

Fig. 2. Use of liquid nitrogen. Author: pxhere

Regarding the characteristics or generalities of nitrogen, we can mention that more than 78% of the air we breathe is constituted by this element, which is also indispensable in the metabolism of living beings, since they participate in the formation of essential amino acids and therefore in the formation of proteins that are the muscular support of our body.

Referring to plant species, nitrogen serves as an essential nutrient in plant growth, it is also one of the main components of chlorophyll, at the soil level it provides indispensable agronomic characteristics for the establishment of healthy and strong crops.

Fig. 3. Chlorophyll, responsible for pigmentation in plants. Author: Hans Braxmeier

Chemically, nitrogen (N2) can be extracted through the fractional distillation method of air, obtaining a very stable substance as a result of the strong bond formed between the atoms of the element, it has the ability to form a large number of compounds with oxygen and nitrogen which exhibit oxidation states ranging from -3 to +5.


Due to the number of oxidation states that metallic elements present, they can form a large number of compounds that respond to the valences with which they are interacting or working. Nitrogen does not escape this reality, so a variety of binary compounds are formed from it, such as anhydrides or acid oxides, hydrides, haloidal salts and compounds with ternary characteristics such as oxic acids, among others. See Table 1.

Table 1. Main nitrogen compounds. Author: @madridbg, through PowerPoint 2010. Adapted from Chang, (2010).

Therefore, in this section of the publication we will focus on some compounds associated with nitrogen, devoting more attention to the anhydrides it forms. Compounds that we will use to instruct the reader in the handling of the nomenclatures of these substances.

So there are many nitrogen anhydrides, so we will describe the three most important ones, among which nitrous anhydride, nitric anhydride and nitrogen dioxide stand out.

In reference to nitrous anhydride (N20), it is a colorless gas with a sweet taste and pleasant aroma, which we can extract from ammonium nitrate if we use temperatures above 270 degrees Celsius, it has the peculiarity of producing excitement when inhaled, which is why it has been catalogued as a laughing gas.[3]

Nitric anhydride (NO), also a gas, which has no odor, can be prepared in the laboratory from sodium nitrite (NaN02) and is one of the main components that generates gases that make up the photochemical smog, a phenomenon caused by pollution in industrialized cities.

Similarly, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), is an extremely toxic brown gas with a suffocating odor that is formed from nitric anhydride when it comes into contact with the air, and is one of the dioxides that has caused the most respiratory problems today. It can also be formed from concentrated nitric acid when subjected to treatment with metallic copper. [1]

Undoubtedly, the action of chemistry is surprising, where compounds formed by the same type of atoms exhibit such different properties and behaviors. As for the name they receive they respond to the rules established by the IUPAC and where we will instruct the reader in the handling of the same.


In this section we will guide the reader in the handling of the formulation and nomenclature of anhydrides, using as an example the nitrogen compounds previously studied, which respond to the traditional nomenclature and where we will schematize the rules so that they are accessible and understandable to the reader.

For this purpose, we will rely on graphic images that allow the reader a better understanding of the proposed exercise, which is to assign a name according to the traditional nomenclature for the equation presented in the following images.

Image 4. Rules for naming anhydrides. Authored by @madridbg, through PowerPoint 2010.

Image 5. Sequence for naming acid anhydride or acid oxides. Author: @madridbg, through PowerPoint 2010.


Ammonium nitrate is one of the most sold substances nowadays, due to its properties as a chemical fertilizer, which can be obtained from ammonia (NH3) in the presence of nitric acid (HNO3), Its high nitrogen content makes it especially suitable for agricultural use, since plants use nitrates directly and bacteria degrade ammonium and transform it into nitriles that increase the nutritional value of soils.

Fig. 6. Agricultural use of ammonium nitrate. Author: Pascvii

However, it is not the utility as an agrochemical that led me to write this publication, the same part of studying the behavior that assumes this substance and that allows it to be used as a powerful explosive, causing a large number of deaths due to improper handling of the product.

Chemically it is an inorganic salt, similar to sodium bicarbonate, where the fragmentation of the particles is small so its presentation is in the form of white powder, although we can also find it granulated. This substance at room temperature is usually very stable, however, when there is a sudden variation in temperature the damage can be catastrophic according to the amount of product handled. See equation 1

Equation 1. Decomposition of ammonium nitrate. Authored by @madridbg, through PowerPoint 2010.

Apparently, it is a simple reaction, however when the temperature exceeds 250 °C, the decomposition is accelerated and 1.46 KJ of heat energy is produced per gram of ammonium nitrate, making it a highly energetic or exothermic process. Similarly, this energy triples when the material is combined with any fuel, flour, sugar, kerosene, among others, making ammonium nitrate a highly destructive material.

The incident experienced in the city of Beirut on May 4, 2020, is attributable to improper storage of ammonium nitrate, where approximately 2,700 tons of the product reacted and generated explosive waves that destroyed the lives of more than 137 people, without taking into account the material disasters generated.

Fig. 7. Beirut in flames because of ammonium nitrate. Author: Oginskaya


Through the publication we were able to know the generalities of the chemical elements, as well as the influence exerted by the oxidation states on the properties exhibited by the compounds obtained by the interaction of different atoms. Likewise, we were able to learn about the duality of ammonium nitrate and the measures to be taken when handling this type of substances, which can be a substantial risk if they are not handled with care.


[1] Chang, R. (2010). Química. Decima edicion. McGraw-hill Interamericana editores. ISBN: 978-607-15-0307-7.

[2] Gómez, T. (2005). Termodinámica. TECNUN. Notas de clase. Campus tecnológico de la Universidad de Navarra.

[3] Groel, N (2006). Generation of carbon dioxide by the reaction of an acid and a base Aquariological Silver Society . Article: Online Access

[5] McMURRY E., John y Fay C., Robert. (2008). Química general. Quinta edición PEARSON EDUCACIÓN, México, 2009 ISBN: 978-970-26 1286-5.

[6] Ralph, H. Petrucci, William S. Harwood, E. Geoffrey Herring. (2003). QUIMICA GENERAL. Octava edición. PEARSON EDUCACIÓN. S.A., Madrid.



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I remember the Beruit incident and a couple of conspiracy theories formulated to explain it. This is such an educating article. Gratias

Hello my friend @gentleshaid thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. From my point of view more than conspiracy the cause of the accident in Beirut was the misuse in terms of storage that was given to the chemical, as we could observe in the writing, it is extremely reactive. We are in contact

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