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Ammonium Nitrate - A source of life or death

            In the morning of September 21, a massive explosion destroyed a fertiliser plant in Toulouse, killing 29 people and injuring more than 2000. Where the plant had once stood, a 50-meter wide crater had been carved in the ground by the blast. But the blast swept far beyond the factory. Windows were blown out in Toulouse City centre three miles away, thousands of buildings were damaged and hundreds were destroyed leaving 1,400 families homeless. At first sight the explosion was thought to be an accident. October 4, the French environment minister said that the incident could have been caused by a terrorist attack, but the French government is not ruling out any cause. Irrespective of the cause of the blast in Toulouse, one thing remains clear. The blast involved ammonium nitrate. .
             The explosion occurred in a stock of approximately 250 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a product that is widely used as a fertiliser and as a blasting agent in mining. In these uses ammonium nitrate supports life, but ever since ammonium nitrate was first synthesised it has also caused many deaths. Ammonium nitrate has been the cause of a series of severe accidents and terrorists have widely used it as a bomb ingredient. .
             The positive attributes of ammonium nitrate have always been thought to outweigh the risks involved. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for crops that are required to feed the world's growing population. All crops need nitrogen in order to grow. Since crops absorb nitrogen mainly in the nitrate form, ammonium nitrate has as fertiliser, considerable advantages over urea, its only large-scale alternative. In ammonium nitrate fifty percent of the nitrogen is already available, therefore the nitrogen is more readily available to the crops. The other use of ammonium nitrate, as an effective blasting agent in open land mining, is also of utmost importance to our society. By mining the exotic metals used in the production of household appliances like computers and microwave ovens can be obtained.

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