Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ammonium Nitrate (AN): Safe Storage, Handling, & Management

Information On Hazards

Hazard Classification

For the purpose of transportation, AN that contains less than 0.2 percent combustible substances and AN fertilizers are classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), as oxidizers. AN with more than 0.2 percent combustible substances is classified by DOT as an explosive.5 (see box below).

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) assigns an instability rating of 3 (in a range of 0-4) to AN, meaning AN is capable of detonation, explosive decomposition, or explosive reaction, but that a strong initiating source or confinement in extreme temperatures is required. AN can explode under certain conditions by adding energy (heat, shock), especially when contaminants are present or it is under confinement.

“Pure” ammonium nitrate is stable and will explode only under extraordinary circumstances. However, the addition of combustible materials such as sugar, grain dust, seed husks or other organic contaminants, even in fairly low percentages, creates a dangerous combination and the ammonium nitrate mixture becomes far more susceptible to detonation. This characteristic of ammonium nitrate underlies most of the advice and recommendations for safe handling contained herein.

Decomposition Chemistry

AN melts at 337° F (170° C) and begins to undergo decomposition when molten. Hazardous scenarios with AN can involve simple thermal decomposition initiated by external fire or other heating, self-sustained decomposition also known as “cigar burning,” and detonation.

Decomposition creates toxic gases containing ammonia and nitrogen oxides. The resulting nitrogen oxides will support combustion, even in the absence of other oxygen. The resulting heat and pressure from the decomposition of AN may build up if the reaction takes place in a confined space and the heat and gases created are not able to dissipate. As the temperature rises, the rate of decomposition increases. In a confined space, the pressure can reach dangerous levels and cause an explosion that will include the detonation of the AN.

When dealing with a large quantity of AN, localized areas of high temperature may be sufficiently confined by the mass of material to initiate an explosion. The explosion of a small quantity of AN in a confined space (e.g., a pipe) may act as a booster charge and initiate the explosion of larger quantities (e.g., in an associated vessel).

During a fire in a facility where AN is present, the AN can become hot and molten which makes the material very sensitive to shock and detonation, particularly if it becomes contaminated with incompatible material such as combustibles, flammable liquids, acids, chlorates, chlorides, sulfur, metals, charcoal, sawdust, etc. If a molten mass becomes confined (e.g., in drains, pipes or machinery), it can explode.

Most types of AN do not continue to decompose once a fire has been extinguished. However, some types of AN fertilizers containing a small percentage of chlorides (e.g., potassium chloride) undergo a smoldering (self-sustaining) decomposition that can spread throughout the mass to produce substantial toxic fumes, even when the initial heat source is removed. These fertilizers that can self-sustain decomposition, known as “cigar burners” are normally compound fertilizers that contain between 5% to 25% nitrogen from ammonium nitrate, up to 20% phosphate (as P2O5) and chloride (which may only be present as a small percentage).


AN mixed with oil or other sensitizing contaminants may explode or detonate when exposed to fire or shock. Organic materials (e.g., packing materials, seed, etc.) will increase the likelihood of an explosion and will make the AN explosion more energetic.

AN may also be sensitized by certain inorganic contaminants, including chlorides and some metals, such as aluminum powder, chromium, copper, cobalt, and nickel.

As AN solution becomes more acidic, its stability decreases, and it may be more likely to explode.
Solid AN readily absorbs moisture, which can lead to caking, self-compression and self confinement. This in turn increases susceptibility to explosion in a fire.

The density, particle size and concentration of solid AN in a material, as well as the presence of other additives, affects the hazard of the material. The technical grade of AN is a lower density (higher porosity) prilled material. Higher density prills are used as fertilizer. AN can be fused with ammonium sulfate fertilizer or amended with carbonate materials to reduce its explosive properties. More information on additives is discussed in Guidance for the Storage, Handling and Transportation of Solid Mineral Fertilizers found in the Reference section. Solid fertilizers are usually coated with an inorganic, non-combustible anti-caking compound to prevent sticking and clumping. AN in undiluted or pure form has a higher degree of overall hazard than when it is mixed or blended with compatible or non-combustible materials that can reduce the concentration. In general for fertilizer blends containing AN, the more nitrogen they contain, the greater the explosion hazard they pose. Blended fertilizers containing AN and chloride compounds and blended fertilizers containing AN contaminated with combustible materials or incompatible substances pose increased explosion hazards. A large number of blended fertilizers are produced from basic primary fertilizer products (e.g., ammonium nitrate, urea, and mono-ammonium phosphate) and natural materials (e.g., rock phosphate, potassium chloride) which can introduce contaminants. All such materials are not necessarily compatible with each other and some may produce undesirable effects when mixed with others. These undesirable effects can include, for example, chemical reaction(s) and physical effects (e.g. stickiness which can cause handling difficulties, moisture migration giving rise to caking tendency). Facilities can consult Guidance for Compatibility of Fertilizer Blending Materials listed in the Reference section to assess potential incompatibility. The Safety Data Sheet (SDS – formerly MSDS) of the AN product should be used as one source of information to assess the overall hazard. The effects of added components can only be determined after careful review of the SDS and other available hazard literature.

Confinement and/or the addition of fuel to AN creates a real danger of explosion. The addition of heat when either of these conditions exists can lead to disaster. Accordingly, the responder should quickly assess if AN has been involved in the fire and whether the AN has been compromised in any of these ways, and plan the fire response accordingly.

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