What are the chemicals that produced the impressive explosion in the port of Beirut used for?

Sodium nitrate is a colorless, odorless salt found in nature (Shutterstock)

The directors of Customs and Security of Lebanon assured on Tuesday that the impressive explosion in the port of Beirut, that left at least 50 dead and thousands injured, it was due to the detonation of a warehouse full of “high explosive power materials”.

These materials were later identified as sodium nitrate, a chemical compound used in the manufacture of explosives for military use and for solid rocket fuel, and it was reported that they had been confiscated a year earlier from a ship in the port of Beirut.

Soon after it was reported that there was also ammonium nitrate, with similar properties as sodium nitrate, but sadly famous for being a typical element used by terrorist groups to manufacture their homemade explosives. According to Security Director Abbas Ibrahim, there were 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut, stored for six years.

Ammonium nitrate is believed to have been the explosive used in the attack against the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994, leaving a balance of 85 fatalities. The attack has been precisely attributed to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, linked to Iran.

Sodium nitrate, whose formula is NaNO3, is found in nature and its main deposits have historically been located in Chile and Peru. It is a colorless and odorless salt that is toxic to the touch and highly flammable. When burned it generates oxygen and therefore can be used in the manufacture of explosives.

Sodium nitrate has been used in solid rocket fuel and in military explosives (RT)
Sodium nitrate has been used in solid rocket fuel and in military explosives (RT)

During the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, sodium nitrate was used massively for the production of military explosives and ammunition. However, the development of more efficient artificial substitutes during World War I reduced their use.

It is still used today to make black powder, for use in fireworks and for the manufacture, combined with other elements, of homemade bombs.

Also, It has been used as a component to manufacture solid rocket fuel and basic explosives, for civil application (mining, construction) and military (artillery ammunition, rockets, among others).

Sodium nitrate is also a by-product of the manufacture of nitroglycerin (TNT), present in the “red water” resulting from the purification of the explosive.

Due to its high nitrogen content, sodium nitrate is often used as a fertilizer (REUTERS / Edgard Garrido)
Due to its high nitrogen content, sodium nitrate is often used as a fertilizer (REUTERS / Edgard Garrido)

One of his current main uses is as a fertilizer and as a food preservative (known as E251), especially sausages. Regarding this last point, there is a debate about the possible harm to health that sodium nitrate consumption could cause, linked in certain types of cancer.

Ammonium nitrate is also used as a fertilizer, although its use as an element for the manufacture of explosives, both for military and home use, is still remarkable.

Due to the danger that these substances represent, its trade is heavily regulated and controlled worldwide, to prevent it from falling into the hands of criminals and terrorist groups. Most countries classify them as “Explosive precursors”, that is, an element that can be used for the manufacture of explosives.

It was not immediately clear to whom the shipment of sodium and ammonium nitrate seized by the Lebanese authorities belonged, nor the reason why it was being held in the port of Beirut. Although the authorities indicated that the final destination of that cargo was Africa.

The explosion was felt throughout Beirut and left at the moment a balance of 50 dead and 2,750 wounded

An unprecedented explosion

The strong detonation of the deposit shook the Lebanese capital, on which a large column of reddish smoke rose on Tuesday.

The authorities of the country’s Ministry of Health confirmed that recorded at least 50 dead and 2,750 injured as a result of the explosion. On-site reporters report bloody people and others trapped under the rubble.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun convened on Tuesday night an “urgent meeting” of the Higher Defense Council. For his part, Prime Minister Hassan Diab decreed national mourning on Wednesday for “the victims of the explosion.


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Frame-by-frame video showing the destructive power of the explosion in Lebanon

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The photos of the explosion in the warehouses of the port of Beirut

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