There are safer alternatives to ammonium nitrate fertilizer. But a safer form?

There are safer alternatives to ammonium nitrate fertilizer. But a safer form?


If you read our Sunday story on ammonium nitrate, you know that non-explosive nitrogen fertilizer alternatives are rapidly overtaking its market.

But what about making ammonium nitrate itself safer?

Lawsuits aimed at CF Industries, one of the nation’s two ammonium nitrate fertilizer makers, accuse the company of producing the fertilizer that exploded in West, a claim CF Industries denies.

The West lawsuits say “there were an abundance of alternative designs no longer protected by patent rights, which nullify or reduce the reactive properties of ammonium nitrate.” And they say CF Industries should have been using one.

So is it really possible to alter ammonium nitrate so that it resists exploding?

Attorney Mo Aziz, who is representing victims of West, says it is.

“We’re going to have to spend significant resources to prove that, and I think we’re up to the challenge,” Aziz said.

Attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. (of O.J. Simpson trial fame) made the same claim after Timothy McVeigh blew up Oklahoma City’s federal building, On behalf of victims of the blast, Cochran argued that Dallas-based ICI Explosives USA should have created a safer version of its product.

Cochran based his claim in part on a 1968 patent by an explosives engineer named Samuel Porter. He had created a process to desensitize ammonium nitrate by adding small amounts of another chemical.

After Oklahoma City, the National Research Council looked into the idea at the request of the ATF. The resulting 1998 report concluded that: “Clearly, there is great incentive to identify an additive that, when added in small percentages, could render ammonium nitrate or other energetic chemicals inert to detonation…but no such additive has yet been identified.”

That same year, a federal appeals court upheld a decision to dismiss Cochran’s suit.

More recently, the Pentagon has devoted a lot of time and money to developing such a formula. It also has come up empty-handed.

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