By Frank J. Dinan
In the early 20th century, Europe faced a crisis. Its food supply grew slowly while its population grew rapidly; mass starvation loomed. A brilliant German chemist, Fritz Haber, devised a solution to this problem that much later led to the tragic explosion that just devastated a town near Waco, Texas.
In 1908, Haber devised a way to take nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it into limitless amounts of ammonium nitrate, an excellent fertilizer that still sustains us. The food crisis was solved, but others were yet to come.
Haber’s technology was used during World War I to make enormous amounts of explosives that killed millions. At the war’s end, thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate remained and much of it was stored in the German town of Oppau in a 30-meter-high storage silo formed into a solid brick-like mass.
After many small-scale tests, sticks of dynamite were exploded in the ammonium nitrate mass to loosen it. After several successful explosions, another charge was set on Sept. 21, 1921. For reasons unknown to this day, this charge caused the entire mass of ammonium nitrate to detonate.
The explosion killed more than 500 Oppau residents, injured thousands and destroyed the entire town, leaving most of its residents homeless. This disaster demonstrated the unpredictable, explosive instability of ammonium nitrate, a lesson that was soon forgotten.
On April 16, 1947, onlookers gathered in Texas City, Texas, to watch as a ship’s cargo burned and its crew attempted to extinguish the flames. The ship’s cargo, 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, exploded. The blast leveled much of Texas City, killed an estimated 570, injured 3,500 and left 2,000 Texas City residents homeless. Again, the cause of the explosion remains a mystery.
Still more recently, our failure to adequately control ammonium nitrate allowed it to be acquired in such large quantities that two home-grown terrorists easily obtained enough to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City, Okla., damaging several hundred other buildings and causing 168 deaths and more than 600 injuries.
Haber’s technology has had disastrous consequences, unimaginable in 1908. Since then ammonium nitrate has been involved in many other unintended explosions and has caused untold numbers of deaths and injuries. The cause of many of these disasters remains in doubt because ammonium nitrate is normally safe and its explosive nature is not completely understood. Still, our government has failed to adequately regulate the manufacture, storage and sale of this chemical.
In the latest Texas disaster, ammonium nitrate was produced and stored in massive quantities close to a town where children were going to school and thousands of people lived. Will we never learn?
Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D., is chemistry professor emeritus at Canisius College.