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hazel 08-05-2020 06:43 AM

The tragedy in Beirut
I'm sure we all feel horror and pity at what has happened to the people of Beirut. But at least we have enough information now to be fairly certain that this was an awful accident and not an act of terror by any group or state. A huge quantity of ammonium nitrate had been stored in a dockside warehouse apparently for some years with very few safety precautions. It had just been dumped and forgotten. A small fire, perhaps sparked off by a welder's torch caused it to blow up with catastrophic results.

This article describes the earlier events that led up to this.

Trust Trump to say it was a bomb!

////// 08-05-2020 07:17 AM

it was biggest explosion that i have ever seen online.
finnish embassy is 2 kilometres away from blast site and they said it suffered significant damage.

hazel 08-05-2020 07:45 AM

I noticed that it was big enough to create a mushroom cloud. It looked as if a small nuclear bomb had gone off.

////// 08-05-2020 07:57 AM


Originally Posted by hazel (Post 6152866)
I noticed that it was big enough to create a mushroom cloud. It looked as if a small nuclear bomb had gone off.

yeah, my first thought were the same thing.
i think they lost their grain silos also, and with covid they have everything going against them :(

hazel 08-05-2020 10:32 AM

The latest news is that all the port officials have been put under house arrest, according to the London Evening Standard. But they mistakenly refer to the ammonium nitrate as sodium nitrate, so what they say should be taken with a pinch of salt(petre!).

DavidMcCann 08-05-2020 11:14 AM

It's unfortunately typical of the way things get done, or rather not done, in the Lebanon:
Reuters report

ondoho 08-05-2020 02:17 PM

^ The extent of bureaucratic laissez-faire and sheer negligence is mindblowing.
It's really sad and pointless, on top of war and Covid 19!
I heard it in the morning, they said the hospitals are already overflowing with Covid19 patients, and this will make things just so much worse.

jefro 08-05-2020 04:47 PM

That fertilizer is used in quarries all over the world. It is also used on farms by the most incompetent workers. It's normally quite safe and won't explode without some violent means and usually the introduction of fuel oil or other additive.
It is logical that the idiots that were storing it may have let motor oils or diesel get on it but in any case something is still needed to set it off. Yes, it did look like a bomb to me.... However, even the SST crashed because of poor practices.

Why they were storing so much for so long is a mystery.

As to how it started we will never know.

I'm sure that most of the folks in that area are kind and well meaning folks just trying to live a life.

enorbet 08-06-2020 01:53 AM

This post will likely be long-winded because I find conflict between the reports on this tragedy and my experience with explosives, especially with nitrate compounds. My introduction to fertilizer as a flammable compound was from a friend, Johnny S., schooled in High School chemistry in the mid 60s while I was still in 8th grade. There was a fairly large lot adjacent to our home that had recently been cleared in preparation for commercial buildings. We discovered the construction wouldn't begin for a year (it actually took two) so we wanted to fly powered model planes there and needed to clear away stumps of trees. Johnny took a few of us to a feed store and there they had numerous fertilizers in bulk. We bought a few pounds of Sodium Nitrate for around $2.00 as I recall.

I was in a College Preparatory Chemistry class so I asked Johnny why we didn't buy the Ammonium Nitrate as I had been taught that nitrate compounds scale in activity from Sodium Nitrate, through Ammonium Nitrate, to Potassium Nitrate (saltpeter), the latter which is used in Black Powder style gunpowder. Johnny said we don't want to blow the stumps up, we just want them to burn really rapidly with the wood itself as the fuel. Additionally he noted that fertilizer grade Sodium Nitrate was cheaply made with lots of impurities so it had enough "fuel" to get started, since the Nitrates are Oxidizers only in more pure form. To get on to the explosive part I'll end this prelude by noting that all we had to do was pour a mound of the fertilizer on a stump and thrust a struck safety match into the mound at it began smoking and bubbling and quite quickly spread through the stumps and we got our relatively smooth flying/landing field.

A few months later Johnny and I built a rocket using some old steel tubing and for fuel we mixed sugar with the sodium nitrate. As I recall we needed roughly 60% sugar to 40% Sodium Nitrate by weight for a good burn. At first we just tamped it into the tube but it was very unreliable and sort of unstable. Sometimes it would just sit there spitting fire for a few minutes and go nowhere if the nozzle was fairly large and loose but when tighter (smaller aperture) they would explode. It seemed impossible for young teens to get the nozzle so accurate plus there was the random components in the fertilizer. We tried Ammonium Nitrate and that was some better because those rockets would more often actually develop enough thrust to take off but they were still unreliable and a bit dangerous packing a tube tightly with explosives.

I talked my Dad into buying us a pound of Potassium Nitrate from the Pharmacy (IIRC it was used for example in treatment for mange) which was guaranteed at least 90% pure. In the meantime I had read that rocketeers routinely used Potassium Nitrate and Sugar and solved the tamping problem by melting it together which caused it's pet name, "Caramel Candy", because that's what it looked like. It melted together at ~400 degrees Farenheit and it's flash temperature is over 600 degrees, so it has a nicely wide range of safety. So I cooked it in our oven at 425. As a solid block it would burn briskly but would not power a rocket that could lift it's own weight. That required increasing the burn area by casting the Caramel Candy mix in a cylinder with a lengthwise hole down the center so instead of burning it's length, it burned it's radius... MUCH faster and more powerful. Those rockets never exploded and the vast proportion of them flew very nicely. These too were 63% Sugar and 37% KNO3 by weight.

Sorry for the long lead up but I couldn't figure any other way to get anyone who was interested "up to speed". I haven't worked in explosives in decades and I have no idea what the proportions of Timothy McVeigh's Ammonium Nitrate/Diesel Fuel bomb was, but I don't see how it could be very far from a minimum of equal weight. 50/50 Potassium Nitrate and Sugar (MUCH more powerful than Sodium or Ammonium) burned briskly at best with no power to speak of as the Nitrate would form a dancing molten bead, much like the sodium nitrate did on stumps. Six ounces of sodium nitrate on a stump would burn for several minutes, far too slow for an explosion no matter how tightly contained. In a closed environment. ie a would-be bomb, it would either not light or just go out quite quickly. Fairly exact proportions of Oxidizer and Fuel are required for an explosion.

So. What was there in Beirut that would be Equal To or MORE weight that the tons of Ammonium Nitrate? Something smells "funny".

////// 08-06-2020 02:04 AM

my father made rockets and small bombs from ammonium nitrate and some weedkillers when he were a kid.
when i were 10ish years old he put some ammonium nitrate on anvil and hit it with a hammer the result were small "bang" which were awesome to a kid of my age. i loved chemistry at highschool probably bcus of my dad's experiments :)

ondoho 08-06-2020 03:31 AM


Originally Posted by jefro (Post 6153024)
Why they were storing so much for so long is a mystery.

Not really. The article DavidMcCann linked:
Quote:, an industry network dealing with legal cases, said in a 2015 report that the Rhosus, sailing under a Moldovan flag, docked in Beirut in September 2013 when it had technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.

It said that, upon inspection, the vessel was forbidden from sailing and shortly afterwards was abandoned by its owners, leading to various creditors coming forward with legal claims.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” it added.
...and forgotten.

You are right, something must've set it off. But after so many years, it's not a stretch of fate that a small fire just happened to be too close.

I won't say "impossible" when somebody produces evidence that this was done on purpose, but for now it was an (incredibly big, incredibly stupid) accident.

descendant_command 08-06-2020 04:58 AM


Originally Posted by enorbet (Post 6153117)
So. What was there in Beirut that would be Equal To or MORE weight that the tons of Ammonium Nitrate? Something smells "funny".

At high enough temperatures, however, ammonium nitrate can violently decompose on its own. This process creates gases including nitrogen oxides and water vapour. It is this rapid release of gases that causes an explosion.

rokytnji 08-06-2020 09:43 AM

We lose towns in TX over this

Even around me

enorbet 08-06-2020 12:40 PM


Originally Posted by descendant_command (Post 6153148)

Thanks. That's interesting but "high enough temperatures" isn't defined. Is that 104 degrees F or 300 degrees? 600 degrees? That article goes on to say...


Originally Posted by Above article
While we don’t know for sure what caused the explosion in Beirut, footage of the incident indicates it may have been set off by a fire – visible in a section of the city’s port area before the explosion happened.

It’s relatively difficult for a fire to trigger an ammonium nitrate explosion. The fire would need to be sustained and confined within the same area as the ammonium nitrate prills.

Also, the prills themselves are not fuel for the fire, so they would need to be contaminated with, or packaged in, some other combustible material.

Clearly there's not enough defining data yet. My point was we will need to know the fuel and fire source. Explosions (and fires) have 3 requirements.

jefro 08-06-2020 05:43 PM

The blast in West, TX is another one that we will never know about.

Take a large amount of product and little/no safeguards and throw in an element of arson/mischief/failure and who knows.

"“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” it added. "

I assume a very slightly less amount of damage would have been caused if the product remained on the ship.

I agree, I've seen some legal deals where property seems to sit in limbo forever.

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