A fertilizer that cannot detonate bombs

Sandia Labs has decided not to patent the formula for this nonexplosive fertilizer, making it freely available in hopes of saving lives.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor on

The key to fertilizer bombs is the ammonium nitrate. When mixed with a fuel like diesel, this agricultural staple becomes the highly explosive, raw ingredient for many improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Now, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a fertilizer that can’t detonate a bomb. And Sandia has decided not to patent or license the formula. Instead, they’re waiving ownership rights, making it freely available in hopes of saving lives, according to a press release earlier this week.

Ammonium nitrate was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and in 65 percent of the 16,300 homemade bombs in Afghanistan in 2012. The Department of Defense's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization issued a call last year for ideas on how to neutralize ammonium nitrate as an IED explosive.

Sandia’s Kevin Fleming came up with a fertilizer formula that’s as good as ammonium nitrate in helping plants grow -- but nonexplosive.

The ammonium ion is only weakly attached to the nitrate ion, and the ions can be separated by adding a compound they would rather cling to. Iron sulfate is a readily available compound that steel foundries throw away by the tons.

When mixed with ammonium nitrate, the iron ion "grabs" the nitrate and the ammonium ion takes the sulfate ion. Iron sulfate becomes iron nitrate and ammonium nitrate becomes ammonium sulfate. This reaction occurs if someone tries to alter the fertilizer to make it detonable when mixed with a fuel.

"The ions would rather be with different partners," Fleming explains. "The iron looks at the ammonium nitrate and says, 'Can I have your nitrate rather than my sulfate?' and the ammonium nitrate says, 'I like sulfate, so I’ll trade you.'"

Ammonium sulfate and iron nitrate are not detonable, even when mixed with a fuel.

Iron sulfate in fertilizer adds iron and helps neutralized soil pH. And it wouldn’t cost more to produce.

[Via PopSci]

Image by Randy Montoya / SandiaLabs via Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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