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Sandia Labs Researcher Develops Fertilizer Without the Explosive Potential

samzenpus posted about a year and a half ago | from the no-boom-for-you dept.

Technology 180

cylonlover writes "Ammonium nitrate is a commonly used fertilizer, but when mixed with a fuel such as diesel, it makes a powerful explosive – as seen in last week's fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. But it's the deliberate use of the compound in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and acts of terror such as the Oklahoma City bombing that gives rise to even greater cause for concern. This is why Kevin Fleming, an optical engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, developed a fertilizer alternative that isn't detonable and therefore can't be used in a bomb."

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Useless .... (5, Interesting)

pollarda (632730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574343)

There are way too many things you can fashion into explosives. For example, chicken manure has enough nitrates in it you can use it as a replacement for ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate / Fuel Oil.) Knowing our government however, they would use this as an excuse to genetically engineer chickens with lower nitrate poop then try to ban all other varieties.

Re:Useless .... (4, Insightful)

Nadaka (224565) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574379)

This stuff would prevent accidental explosions. Its hardly useless if this stuff is similarly effective and inexpensive as a fertilizer.

Re: Useless .... (4, Insightful)

pollarda (632730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574481)

True. But as it says, this fertilizer was primarily developed to prevent fertilizer from being used in IEDs. To this it is at least a partial failure as there are way too many household chemicals that can be turned into explosives or highly dangerous chemicals. (Bleach and ammonia make hydrazine for example. Ammonium nitrate is found in instant cold packs that can be purchased in any drug store.)

Re: Useless .... (5, Informative)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574655)

Intelligence analyst from JIEDDO here. True there are other household chemicals that can be used in IEDs. But Ammonium Nitrate is produced in such mass quantities that it provides a ready source of IED material. There are caches found with 20,000 lbs plus of AN, and it's produced just over the border in Pakistan by several fertilizer companies. If the fertilizer companies were to switch to something else, it would put a damper on the sheer size of the IED problem. Yes, over time they could switch, and we'll follow suit and limit the availability of that chemical next. But we're not going to throw our hands up and do nothing because there are "way too many household chemicals."

Re: Useless .... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574839)

The point is that's a flawed approach. The resources needed to thwart the production of IEDs, both directly and indirectly through ongoing losses caused by these temporal-at-best solutions, are far greater than those needed to prevent the motivation for creating IEDs in the first place. Moreover, it seems like these "solutions" may only increase the number of potential IEDs makers through the generation of lower crop yields, worse living conditions, an overall resentment towards any force trying to implement these solutions, etc.

Re: Useless .... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574911)

If the fertilizer companies were to switch to something else, it would put a damper on the sheer size of the IED problem.

I dispute your assumption that this is a problem.

Re: Useless .... (4, Interesting)

hairyfeet (841228) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574977)

Unless you are gonna stick a gun to their head and force them to switch why should they? Knowing this stuff will end up being more expensive so you expect them to waste millions, possibly billions, because some of their product is used to blow up soldiers of a country the majority there isn't fond of anyway? Not bloody likely.

So the only way you'll get them to switch is bribe them or bomb them, otherwise they have absolutely zero reason to care. Fertilizer is a billion dollar business and even raising the cost a dime could shift who gets these huge contracts so unless you believe the American taxpayer should yet again foot the bill so that it costs them nothing or is more profitable to use the new stuff i just don't see most of the third world switching. After all all it will do for them is raise costs, IEDs aren't really that high on the radar from their point of view.

Re: Useless .... (5, Informative)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575005)

Thanks for demonstrating you know nothing whatsoever about the problem. We have in fact asked the major suppliers of AN to adjust their practices to minimize how much AN is stolen or siphoned off for IEDs, and they've been very sooperative. They don't like having their name connected with terrorism on the international news every day. And the price of AN has gone from about $4.00 per 40lbs bag early in the war to over $100 per bag recently due to various efforts to curtail its use in IEDs. But thanks for playing.

Re: Useless .... (2)

drerwk (695572) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575253)

Re the cost increase on AN - does that mean legitimate use as fertalizer went up 25x for farmers?

Re: Useless .... (2, Informative)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575287)

There are other fertilizers available, like calcium ammonium nitrate.

Re: Useless .... (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575313)

But it sounds more than a little like the 'war on drugs'. Yes, there have been attempts at weaning Afghanistan farmers away from the lucrative poppy crop. Might have even put a bit of a damper on heroin production. But addicts got to get their fix, haters got to hate. I don't see it as materially improving the IED situation.

It might be able to prevent another Texas fertilizer plant explosion - that in itself is a worthy goal, but changing the dynamics of the Middle East, not so much.

Re: Useless .... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575673)

And have ieds been reduced? Thanks for playing.

Re: Useless .... (1)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575779)

Thanks for demonstrating you know nothing whatsoever about the problem.

The "Problem" is that "making something that is explosive" can be done whether the US likes it or not, and with materials that everyone has access to.

I dont know what the solution is, but its certainly not to go after anything that contains nitrogen in the hopes that you'll win that arms race.

Re: Useless .... (3, Informative)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575833)

We can try to limit the size and scale of the IED problem. Our vehicles are getting hit with 700lbs+ IEDs. That's not something you whip up with stuff sitting around the basement. There's a huge supply chain of materials streaming into Afghanistan, and we're trying to limit their ability to employ IEDs not only against us but against local nationals, Afghan police, and Afghan military.

Re: Useless .... (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43576053)

You'll have to limit the amount of salt available to people then. Ordinary NaCl can be converted into NaCl3 easily. As can KCl be converted into KClO3. A very crude electrochemical cell can make the chlorates quite easily, without requiring any exotic materials, or leaving much of a "telltale footprint".

And a kg of KClO3/NaClO3 + fuel is going to produce a significantly nastier boom than a kg of blackpowder, as used in the Boston bombs.

At the end of the day a "war on precursors" has to go so far up the chain of precursors that it becomes ludicrous. The starting products in the making of
    Ammonium Nitrate, for example, are AIR and WATER. Granted, you need a big iron pressure-vessel to do the conversion, but if you don't care about
    the rate at which you turn out "product", it doesn't need to be very big.

Re: Useless .... (4, Interesting)

nametaken (610866) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575785)

Curious. Doesn't the price per bag for fertilizer going from $4 to $100 make it prohibitively expensive for it's normal use as fertilizer?

Was there a considerable reduction in the number of IED's since the price skyrocketed?

Re: Useless .... (2)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575819)

AN is illegal in Afghanistan. Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) is legal and plentiful. Yes, there was a decrease. There were also many other measures taken to reduce the effectiveness of IEDs, like better armored vehicles, better detection capabilities, et al.

Re: Useless .... (2)

nametaken (610866) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575989)

I see, so that was a change in price for illicit goods, and the safer alternative in Afghanistan is a good replacement? I don't know much about farming, but it sounds like an "everyone wins" scenario, to me. Well... everyone but the bad guys.

Re: Useless .... (2)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576049)

That's the idea. Calcium Ammonium Nitrate is a cheap decent alternative fertilizer, though it can still be used in IEDs, albeit with a whole lot more work involved. If they could both be replaced by a decent cheap fertilizer that has even less (or no) capability to be used in explosives, that would be even better.

Re: Useless .... (1)

hairyfeet (841228) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575875)

And thanks for showing you live in Washington where a billion here and a billion there? really not worth worrying about. while i'm sure they wouldn't like being associated with terrorists guess what? THEY AREN'T, oh maybe in some circles in the belt but NOBODY in the free world automatically thinks IEDs when they think fertilizer, they think...well they think "crap" but that's another story.

Again when you are talking about selling boatloads? A 10c per pound raise can mean the difference to whether you get that billion dollar contract or you don't so again unless you stick a gun to their head or bribe them so its cheaper NOT to make the kind that can be used for IEDs the other guy WILL be happy to take that billion dollar contract and the ones stupid enough to go along will be out of business in three years or less..again for a country that they honestly don't give a rat fuck about either way.

Might want to look up global trade and fertilizer sales sometime because that ain't a case of through the looking glass like in the belt, where you can piss money away and not care, a single cent increase in price can mean the difference between a company having a great quarter and a company going out of business. Most of the third world? They are worried about having food on the table, jobs for their people, and not having the whole thing get blown away by a disaster, IEDs? really not even in the top ten. Sorry to be so blunt but that is white people's problems and not really on the radar, especially if it'll cost them hundreds of millions which when you are talking about completely retooling a factory to make something different? it MOST CERTAINLY WILL, so please quit pretending this is some magic switch, its billions of dollars that SOMEBODY has to pay...sadly it will probably yet again be the American taxpayer.

Re: Useless .... (3, Informative)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575995)

Newsflash, AN is illegal in Afghanistan in any shape or form, for fertilizer, explosive, or otherwise. So the fertilizer firms have quite a bit of incentive to make a kind of fertilizer that can't be used in explosives (something they're actively doing if you haven't been paying attention, despite your claims that it doesn't make sense to do so), so they can legally do business in Afghanistan, price be damned. I'm not referring to the whole rest of the world where IEDs aren't a problem.

Re: Useless .... (1, Funny)

ThePeices (635180) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576123)

As this is Slashdot, due to your misspelling of the word 'cooperative', all points that you have raised, and all factual information given, is now incorrect. Your argument has been officially dismantled.

Welcome to Slashdot. Thanks for playing.

Re: Useless .... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43576345)

Wait, you're playing the well-connected intelligence analyst claiming success because you raised the cost of a fundamental commodity necessary not just for farming, but that is directly responsible for production of the basic elements [food] necessary for human survival, by 2500% ? And that's success?

And you've done this in economically depressed regions where people already can barely afford to eat? And in so doing permitted developing local industry to be underbid by other agencies?

And...he's the one that knows nothing whatsoever about the problem?

*YOU ARE THE FUCKING PROBLEM*

You and people like you who sit there and define problems in terms of business policy objectives, military economic objectives and say 'fuck the human cost'

Fuck you -- you give truth to the name babykiller. Raising the price of necessary agricultural tools 25fold to stop a couple of fucking bombs is not a solution.

But thanks for playing. Jackass.

LOL....good luck with that (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43576357)

And the price of AN has gone from about $4.00 per 40lbs bag early in the war to over $100 per bag recently due to various efforts to curtail its use in IEDs. But thanks for playing.

And of course that $96 will appear out of thin air, not come out of the pockets of farmers + civilian population, or anything crazy like that.

The only one who is playing here is you, and your cronies. With fire. And you will get burned.

Re: Useless .... (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575355)

TFA says that you just need to mix the AN with a byproduct from steel manifacturing. That doesn't sound like it would make the stuff more expensive. In fact, I would say that since it would remove the need for all kind of administrative crap like background check, it could actually make fertilizer cheaper. Finally, the article says that it should actually be a better fertilizer in Afghan soil.

Re: Useless .... (0)

VortexCortex (1117377) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575099)

What about flour + air = bomb? Got any plans to replace grain with a more stable material?

What about all those ammunition dumps? Got any plans to share the technology for how you keep large caches of explosives from creating chain explosions?

I mean, yeah, just don't put it all in one big pile, and space it out a bit -- But if you can't even teach Texans how to do this simple thing, isn't it all rather hopelessly ineffectual and expensive for no reason? Wouldn't the money be better spent elsewhere, like, oh, I don't know, actual planetary defenses against big rocks?

Re: Useless .... (2)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575311)

We haven't seen any flour+air IEDs yet so far as I know, so I'm thinking that its use on a large scale is not feasible. If it becomes a problem, we can find ways to limit its use in IEDs in various ways.

As for conventional weapons caches in Afghanistan, they haven't really been a problem there. Nor are there any fertilizer plants in Afghanistan.

Re: Useless .... (1)

ultranova (717540) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575471)

We haven't seen any flour+air IEDs yet so far as I know, so I'm thinking that its use on a large scale is not feasible. If it becomes a problem, we can find ways to limit its use in IEDs in various ways.

Which one are you going to ban, flour or air?

Re: Useless .... (2)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575529)

I didn't say to ban it, I said limit its use in IEDs. For instance, we can ask flour manufactures to increase security, add serial numbers to bags so we can better track them and reduce siphoning off. We could try to encourage the use of less explosive alternatives, perhaps other grains. Basically, what we've done with ammonium nitrate.

Re: Useless .... (1)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575799)

Why cant you just go after the people making flour bombs, rather than foisting a massive burden onto society?

Re: Useless .... (1)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575809)

By the way i intend no disrespect to you personally-- I admire that your job seems to be trying to solve these sorts of problems-- but I think what you are expressing is the wrong way to do it.

Re: Useless .... (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575509)

Based on my experience (past the statute of limitations) you should watch out for people purchasing large amounts of powdered coffee creamer and trying not to grin.

At some point they're going to start leaching manure piles to make black powder.

Then again, how many land mines in the ground? How many anti-tank mines?

Also LOX is easy to make out of any other liquified gas...I was a rotten kid.

Re: Useless .... (1)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575537)

None of those are really a concern in Afghanistan. There are some left over mines from the Soviet Union, but they don't account for much of the IEDs found.

Re: Useless .... (2)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575791)

The real problem is a mentality that we need to find every conceivable danger and remove it from society,

Maybe that works out for some states, but it doesnt fit with my conception of what a free state is. If flour bombs become a problem, we can deal with it the same way society has always dealt with these sort of problems: by punishing the people causing havoc after they commit the crime.

Re: Useless .... (1)

oodaloop (1229816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575887)

I'm not talking about U.S. society. If someone makes a (like, one) flour+air IED in the U.S., then charge them and prosecute in a court of law. I was referring to Afghanistan, in a combat zone, and if it became a huge problem (I'm imagining hundreds or thousands per year; THAT's a problem to me). In that highly hypothetical case, I imagine something would be done to mitigate the threat. Perhaps some sort of overhead sensor looking for stockpiles of flour it places in doesn't belong. I imagine there's little reason for 20,000 lbs of flour to be sitting in stockpiles near one of our bases in a small village. Mind you, it's a separate argument for our being there at all; that's not my decision. My job is to track down networks employing IEDs. Actually, my current job is training others how to do that.

Re: Useless .... (3, Insightful)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574905)

there are way too many household chemicals that can be turned into explosives or highly dangerous chemicals. (Bleach and ammonia make hydrazine for example.

The difference is that few people have a reason to buy a ton of both bleach and ammonia, so it would raise suspicions. Anybody who farms has a reason to buy a ton of ammonium nitrate. Your hydrazine example has other problems: hydrazine is very toxic, flammable, and dangerously unstable. Ammonium nitrate is far easier to handle. That is why it is actually used in IEDs, whereas hydrazine is not.

Non-explosive fertilizer will not prevent 100% of IEDs, but it will help. It will also help prevent explosions like the one in Texas.

Re: Useless .... (1)

just_a_monkey (1004343) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575033)

The difference is that few people have a reason to buy a ton of both bleach and ammonia, so it would raise suspicions.

Uhu. So how much bleach and ammonia do you need to make a bomb?

Re: Useless .... (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575323)

Uhu. So how much bleach and ammonia do you need to make a bomb?

RTFM [amazon.com]

Re:Useless .... (1)

HiThere (15173) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575531)

Yeah? So it's cheap to manufacture and there won't be any excessive patent fees?

Sorry, this sounds either useless or an attempt to create a brand new exploitive monopoly. Can't tell which from here, but I'd be extremely surprised if it were as cheap to make as ammonium nitrate.

Re:Useless .... (1)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575759)

IIRC last week's explosion was purely due to the pressure and temperature at which the ammonia was being stored.

They hadnt crafted the nitrogen into an explosive, its just when you have a gigantic tank of gas stored at 250psi @ room temperature, and it gets heated up by a fire, it tends to rupture with explosive force. Article says that this new stuff uses ammonium sulfate, which makes the flunky chemist in me think that theyd still need to store high-pressure ammonia, and could experience the exact same "accident".

Fertilizer doesnt tend to accidentally explode under basically any non-industrial situation.

Re:Useless .... (1)

CAIMLAS (41445) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576547)

I, for one, am curious how the West, Texas fertilizer plant exploded.

There are rules and regulations for the storage of diesel fuel. Likewise for fertilizer. They don't get stored in close proximity. How did they combine in a sufficiently high ratio to create an explosion of the magnitude seen without some additional catalyst? That was a huuuuuge explosion!

Re:Useless .... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574665)

Ammonium Nitrate will never go away. The second largest use of AN after farming is the mining industry. They use ANFO cause it is cheap. And the Texas thing wasn't ANFO. I doubt they were mixing fuel oil into their fertilizer. It was bad manufacturing and risk mitigation practices. A lot of chemicals are dangerous in that sense.

Re:Useless .... (1)

Marksolo (970704) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574731)

Ammonium Nitrate is explosive on it's own, it is not as effective or as easy to detonate as ANFO.

Better to just cut the over-fertilization (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574355)

There's just too much fertilizer being dumped on plants, with the added benefit of the pesticides that go along with it.

WTF Slashdot? (0, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574359)

The explosion at the Texas plant was not from mixing Ammonium Nitrate with Diesel fuel.

Get your heads out of your asses, you fucking idiots.

Re: Did you read the summary??? (-1)

pollarda (632730) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574447)

This fertilizer wasn't developed to stop fertilizer plants from blowing up. If it was, someone probably would have developed it a long time ago. Fertilizer plants rarely blow up -- unless you live in Texas in which case be sure to live far away from fertilizer plants and cargo ships.

This stuff was developed --- as it says in the article summary -- to prevent nitrate laden fertilizer from being used in IEDs.

Re: Did you read the summary??? (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574591)

Did you read the summary? First line: "Ammonium nitrate is a commonly used fertilizer, but when mixed with a fuel such as diesel, it makes a powerful explosive – as seen in last week's fertilizer plant explosion in Texas." Your parent points out that the explosion in Texas does not demonstrate that it makes a powerful explosive when mixed with diesel. The explosion in Texas demonstrated that it's pretty explosive all on its own.

The interesting thing is that this heightened interest in ANFO seems to have been caused by two explosions that did not involve ANFO. The explosion in Texas was straight AN. The explosions at the Boston Marathon were powered by gunpowder. It's possible that the next explosion could be caused by ANFO, but that's not the current problem.

The big issue here is that we could stop treating farmers buying fertilizer as potential terrorists. They could buy all of this new fertilizer that they wanted without triggering terror checks. That doesn't really make us safer (the current system seems to be successful at preventing ANFO's use in terrorism), but it would make farmers' lives easier. Frankly, I think that that would be a good thing.

Re: Did you read the summary??? (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574937)

There was a huge explosion back in 1917: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halifax_Explosion
That actually started the trend of mining use of ANFO as a safe explosive.

The chemical companies do not just make Ammonia Nitrate for fertilizer _ALONE_, as there are other industrial uses for the chemical. So your comment would only apply to Fertilizer plants alone.

This is a knee jerk reaction and not something new. If there were a safe way to handle _OTHER_ industrial uses for the chemical, they would have done so in the 90+ years of know the explosive properties.

Re: Did you read the summary??? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43576279)

The interesting thing is that this heightened interest in ANFO seems to have been caused by two explosions that did not involve ANFO. The explosion in Texas was straight AN. The explosions at the Boston Marathon were powered by gunpowder. It's possible that the next explosion could be caused by ANFO, but that's not the current problem.

And of course there is the oklahoma city bombing which is often cited as an example of ANFO; the actual bomb was ANNM.

Re: Did you read the summary??? (1)

mjwalshe (1680392) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576477)

Yes i recall my high school chemistry teacher telling us about the dangers of ammonia based compounds how a farmer tried to remove an old pile of fertilizer with a 1/4 stick of dynamite and flattened his farm.

Re: Did you read the summary??? (1)

nospam007 (722110) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575789)

"unless you live in Texas in which case be sure to live far away from fertilizer plants and cargo ships. "

...and grassy knolls.

BLEV (0)

Latent Heat (558884) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574573)

Unless someone tells me differently, the West, Texas accident was a BLEV -- boiling liquid expanding vapor -- accident.

When you rupture a vessel containing a liquid under pressure, the liquid "flashes" into vapor driving an explosion, the power of which is enhanced by the conflagration of the ammonia when it meets air.

BLEV's were the mechanism behind boiler explosions involving incombustible H2O back in the day of steam locomotives (and in this day with accidents with antique steam tractors). You can also get BLEVs with propane or other hydrocarbon liquids. There was some recent controversy about Google Page Rank, where a search for some campground in Spain turns up a horrific disaster where a BLEV from a badly maintained tanker truck taking a shortcut over back roads to avoid tolls blew up.

I fully expect someone on the TV news to make such a mistake, but to conflate West, Texas with the explosive properties of the ANFO mix, yes, some heads need to be removed from back sides, and some persons of limited intellect need to stop procreating. Is there anyway to remove this thread from Slashdot so we don't look like people who should be prevented from reproducing?

Re:BLEV (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574617)

It's too late with respect to your parents

all the tanks are intact; not a BLEVE (5, Informative)

SuperBanana (662181) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574675)

Look st the post-explosion photos and you'll see that the anhydrous ammonia tanks are all intact. They're hard to miss - they're virtually the only thing left standing. BLEVE explosions obliterate the tanks they occur in and throw massive amounts of shrapnel.

Sorry, chief. It was an ammonium nitrate explosion. It was not a BLEVE (note the correct spelling.)

Re:all the tanks are intact; not a BLEVE (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575351)

Spelling smart ass

BLEVE is correct but if you say BLEVE explosion as you did, you are being redundant, like DC Comics.

Re:BLEV (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574737)

Besides what the poster below mentioned, I'm pretty sure they concluded that the vapor explosion wouldn't have had the explosive force to, say, level the town. That required the excessive unregulated buildup of tons of ammonium nitrate without proper safety controls for something with the potential to be that explosive.

Re:BLEV (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575359)

Is there anyway to remove this thread from Slashdot so we don't look like people who should be prevented from reproducing?

Your concern is misplaced. To reproduce sexually, an organism has to engage in actual (rather than simulated or conjectured) intercourse with the other gender of the same species.

For the universe of Slashdot readers, a theoretical possibility to be sure, but in actual practice it is of little consequence.

Re:WTF Slashdot? (1, Insightful)

Qzukk (229616) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574621)

The explosion at the Texas plant was not from mixing Ammonium Nitrate with Diesel fuel

The real WTF is that it's explosive without mixing it with diesel. Why even mention mixing it with diesel?

Re:WTF Slashdot? (0)

ChrisMaple (607946) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575065)

Diesel helps transmit the explosive shock wave in a container of granular ammonium nitrate.

I'm developing some right now. (0)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574401)

I'm developing some right now. It involves this morning's sesame seed bagel with cream cheese.

Re:I'm developing some right now. (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574429)

Change name to eatypoo.

Fertilizer that can't be used in a bomb? (5, Funny)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574405)

I call bullshit! (Literally. Unless you want to be really nasty, that is.)

Re:Fertilizer that can't be used in a bomb? (1)

Alain Williams (2972) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574627)

+1. I wish that I had mod points!

Re:Fertilizer that can't be used in a bomb? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574743)

Clearly, that would be a dirty bomb.

Re:Fertilizer that can't be used in a bomb? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575743)

Biogas

Will not stop terrorists... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574427)

... as if you needed me to tell you that. It's not as though basic chemistry is incomprehensible to evil people. I'm pretty sure they can figure out how to purify the ammonium nitrate.

Of course, if this prevents unintentional fertilizer explosions, it's still worth something, but I am skeptical.

Re:Will not stop terrorists... (1)

Dunbal (464142) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574735)

Yup that's the problem - people think other people are stupid. Gunpowder was being made 1,000 years ago so anyone who thinks this will "solve" anything is seriously delusional. Explosives are not HARD to make. They are EASY to make.

Re:Will not stop terrorists... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574871)

Yup that's the problem - people think other people are stupid.
PROBLEM???

This is a fundamental prerequisite. Competition between and management of smart people is hard. The developement of entire social structures for sustaining a population of dumbasses has been in play since the Magna Carta. As usual, they forgot to account for exponential growth.

Re:Will not stop terrorists... (1)

Garridan (597129) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574873)

Something done 1000 years ago isn't necessarily easy today. As shown on mythbusters, making good gunpowder takes quite a bit of skill and car.

Re:Will not stop terrorists... (1)

Jeremi (14640) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574963)

Yup that's the problem - people think other people are stupid. Gunpowder was being made 1,000 years ago so anyone who thinks this will "solve" anything is seriously delusional. Explosives are not HARD to make. They are EASY to make.

Frankly, some other people are stupid. Not every terrorist is an evil genius. Hell, most of them are pretty dumb, that's part of the reason why they are able to convince themselves that murder is somehow going to improve things.

So yes, making misbehavior more difficult for stupid people is often a worthwhile thing to do, even if smart people can work around it. Hell, look at iTunes -- easily broken DRM, but still good enough to keep most people buying instead of pirating.

As the old saying goes, (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574479)

"It's not a bug, it's a feature!"

Questions (3, Interesting)

puddingebola (2036796) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574513)

1. Ammonium nitrate can be synthesized with Nitric acid and Ammonia. Are these that hard to come by in Afghanistan or Pakistan? 2. Purification would probably just require you finding something that is soluble with Ammonium Nitrate and not Iron Sulfate, or vice versa. Maybe that would be harder than I'm thinking it would be. Maybe some other method would be possible (magnetic?). 3. Any long term environmental consequences to building up Iron compounds in soils over generations of use? Is there an ecologist or an agronomist in the house?

Ooohhh, Kevin FLEMING... (1)

xantic (1804314) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574515)

At first glace I read his name as Kevin Flaming, which would've been somewhat fitting. Then I realized my mistake when I read about the non-explosive nature of the fertilizer. Then I realized another mistake in that I should be utilizing my optical enhancers to avoid the aforementioned mistake to begin with.

Acidifies soils (5, Informative)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574531)

According to the article it acidifies soils which the author finds good for areas with alkaline soils. And he says that some areas of Afghanistan have alkaline soils. Fine, but unless Afghanistan is unlike the rest of the world, some areas will have alkaline soils and some have acidic soils. I happen to have acidic soils on my farm and would never use a fertilizer that would further decrease the pH. We have plenty of iron in the soils here already too.

The cost increase may be low, but they cannot argue that with the added materials and logistics, the cost will be the same in places that already have ammonium nitrate fertilizers in use. Perhaps where their crony governments force farmers to buy calcium carbonate fertilizer it would be cost neutral.

But until hunger is eliminated in the world and all the world has healthy food to eat, governments have no business increasing the cost of food. Far more than 180 have died due to malnutrition since the Murrah building. Governments could trying sticking to courts, police and defense if they want to minimize the incidence of terrorism. And maybe help out with world hunger if they just can't stand sitting on their hands.

Re:Acidifies soils (4, Informative)

xquercus (801916) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574815)

Yes, the soil acidification would be a downside. Alternatives to ammonium nitrate already exist, but they all have downsides. Ammonium sulphate is one example. One downside of ammonium sulphate is that it's inappropriate to use on crops which don't tolerate acid soil -- the same downside as the formula referenced in the article. We aren't all growing acid loving rhododendrons. Urea is another common alternative. It's an organic fertilizer which requires microbial action (in situ) before becoming bio-available. It's slow release which can be desirable for some management techniques but often farmers fertilize just weeks before planting. Quick release ammonium nitrate is generally preferable in that situation. Finally anhydrous ammonia is available. While not practical for the homeowner and subject to significant regulation due to its high potential for diversion for the illicit manufacture of methamphetamine, it's hardly ideal. Ammonium nitrate really is the silver bullet when it comes to quick release and cheap nitrogen for agricultural use. It would be great if farmers were concerned about the long term quality of their soils and we adopted farming techniques which reflected this. Unfortunately, this isn't the way it works, and for a farmer who needs nitrogen NOW for THIS YEAR'S crop, ammonium nitrate is an excellent solution.

Re:Acidifies soils (2, Informative)

Rene S. Hollan (1943) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575815)

Feric sulphate has an additional advantage: it stops the "Shake and Bake" production of meth cold by converting the lithium used to Lithium Amide: LiN2. It's been suggested as an instant cold pack additive for that reason.

"Shake and Bake" meth production involves generating ammonia in-situ with the reaction of NaOH (drain cleaner) with NH4NO3 (instant cold packs). This dissolves in some organic solvent, like methyl ethyl ketone, in which one has already dissolved pseudo-ephedrine. The presence of lithium (from batteries) results in a "Birch-like" reduction (sodium in anhydrous ammonia) of the pseudo-ephedrine to methamphetamine. The organic layer is filtered off, and the filtrate "crashed" with hydrigen chloride gas (from a battery acid/salt generator) to yield crystals of crude methamphetamine hydrochloride. The production of ammonia also results in production of water, and water is sometimes introduced at the start to kick-start the reaction.

The "cooking" (prior to filtration and crashing with HCL) generally takes place in a sealed soda bottle, with all reagents present. Besides the pressure buildup from the ammonia gas (requiring periodic "burping" of the bottle), a signficant side reaction of 2Li + 2H2O -> 2LiOH +H2(g) is exothermic, and can both igniite the H2 (and organic solvent) if any oxygen is present, as well as possibly have the lithium melt through the plastic wall of the container (which will then expose the contents to atmospheric oxygen, possibly igniting them).

It's amazing that people resort to doing this.

Now, lithium and ammonia will react to produce lithium amide: Li + 2NH3 -> LiN2 + 3H2, and the reaction is exothermic, but it requires a high activation energy, so is usally slow enough to ignore in this case. Iron ions catalyse this, and the production of Lithium Amide kills the Birch-like reduction cold. Thus, it has been suggested to add iron salts to instant cold packs so they can't be used as a source of ammonia for "shake and bake" meth synthesis. The reader is left to figure out how this can be overcome.

Note: this was intended for educational purposes. I strongly discourage meth production. The process above is extremely dangerous, and the product is really bad for your health. It should be necessary to state that producing methamphetamine is illegal as well. Attempts to make it "safe" generally involve trying to keep the lithium floating on the organic solvent layer while the water is being produced below it. However, periodic shaking tends to bring the two together for brief periods, until the reaction between them is quenched once the bottle is stilled and the lithium floats to the top of the organic solvent layer again. I learned about it while researching solvated electrons. Seriously, the process described is already "all over the internet".

Re:Acidifies soils (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574861)

Yeah governments, leave the food-price-speculation to the hedge funds and banks!

Just remember to bail them out if they bet the wrong way.

Re:Acidifies soils (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575003)

Wtf? I was with you till your 3rd paragraph. It is easy to eliminate hunger. Mostly it involves not sending free food and water to cultures that breed like rabbits and insist on living in deserts.
Even in America, i don't take the blame for the homeless guy who is too well off to show up at the homeless shelter or red cross.
Government increase the cost of food? Left to it's own devices, the American farmer would have to PAY supermarkets to stock their oversupply and set up some type of google ad revenue to make any money at all.
I guess I missed your point in your whole anti gov't rant. On this one, it's the only thing they still manage well - considering all the players.

industrial chemicals, by the ton (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574583)

the problem is that millions of pounds (if not tons) of AN is made each year for fertilizer and explosives use. Do you want to set up two sets of manufacturing plants so that the explosives grade stuff doesn't get contaminated with the iron compounds? And it's not like AN is unique. There's lots of things that can be used as an explosive in an IED. AN gets used because it's cheap. $20/50 pound sack (600-700/ton, last time I checked).

Everything useful has other uses. Anhydrous ammonia is a great fertilizer.. inject it into the soil and the soil moisture picks it up. But it's also used to synthesize methamphetamine. Sulfuric and Nitric acids have so many uses it's hard to imagine them all, and sure, you can make explosives. What about acetone and hydrogen peroxide: both have lots of uses, but can be used to make TATP of "no more than 100 ml liquid" fame.

Why buy this? (5, Funny)

guevera (2796207) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574587)

Why would I buy this stuff?
Right now you can buy Amonium Nitrate that gives you a ton of readily available nitrogen for your crops at a relatively small cost.
And, in case I need it, I can build a bomb with the stuff, too.
I don't often need to build an IED, but whether it's a stump in your field or a neighbor messing with you or the damn federals raiding your moonshine still, sometimes you need to blow something up. With amonium nitrate, I don't have to buy and store expensive and potentially dangerous explosives just on the off chance I need to blow something sky high.
But this new no-go-boom-fertilizer just takes away the features I'm used to getting for free with my fertilizer. It's like DRM for ag chemicals.

Re:Why buy this? (1)

r2kordmaa (1163933) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574887)

You would buy it because the government bans sale of pure ammonium nitrate for example. Anyway this is old news and doesnt really solve the problem. The mix doesnt detonate if you mix fuel with it - IED makers usually do that to increase potency of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Problem is that fertilizel blows up on its own too without fuel addition, what probably happened in Texas, just that its not very potent explosive. Still if you are talking about what sort of quantities agriculture uses thats kind of a moot point.

Re:Why buy this? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574991)

KClO3 can be made easily with readily-available materials and would be just fine for a Boston-style IED.

A small "plant" for KClO3 in your garage could be made to produce a few kg per month of KClO3, would raise essentially no suspicions, and would be vastly
    less dangerous to operate than, for example, a meth lab.

The whole "cracking down on precursors" thing only really works against the too-stupid-to-google IED crowd...

Save the farmers! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574619)

When only terrorists can buy fertilizer they've won.

Re:Save the farmers! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43576051)

Build a working firearm that can only shoot bad guys, and your joke will start to make any sense.

But thanks for playing.

should take about zero seconds (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574677)

For most people to secure alternate sources of ammonium nitrate. And only slightly longer for the black SUV's to show up if you try and purchase more than a cupfull of the raw material.
As usual, farmers wont go for this and others can make their own.

Wont go boom (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574777)

But wont do a damned thing for your crops either.

Reminds me of that orange scented modeling "glue" back in the 80's.. sure you couldn't sniff it but it didn't hold 2 pieces of plastic together to save your life.

Why Is Terrorism Worse? (5, Interesting)

Bob9113 (14996) | about a year and a half ago | (#43574885)

But it's the deliberate use of the compound in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and acts of terror such as the Oklahoma City bombing that gives rise to even greater cause for concern.

Why? If the number of people dying from industrial accidents is greater than the number dying from terrorism, shouldn't we be focusing on the greater threat to human life? Particularly given that the explosion in Texas looks like it was caused, at least in part, by lax regulatory compliance.

The only reason I can see for terrorism being worse is that it terrifies us. But the rational solution for that is, colloquially, to grow a pair. Stop saying things like "terrorism is a greater cause for concern" when it is not. Be rational, and help the public to be rational -- stop adding to the emotionalistic, irrational fear of terrorism.

The reason-for-being of terrorism is asymmetric warfare. That only works if a society offers the asymmetric, panicky response that terrorism is meant to induce. Stop contributing to that by claiming that a statistically smaller threat is a greater concern.

Wouldn't it be cheaper and more effective... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43574931)

Wouldn't it be cheaper and more effective if there were enough enforcement of the laws so that a facility with a permit to hold ONE ton of fertiliser could not hold FORTY tons?

That would have reduced the explosion to 2.5% of the strength at a stroke.

Unintended Consequences (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575039)

I've heard it said that one of the biggest reasons why we've tolerated opium poppy cultivation so much over the years is that if we ever managed to crack down hard on it, the growers would switch to other poppy species and the clandestine chemists would figure out economical ways of creating Bentley compounds from them. Apparently, this class of opiates is incredibly potent (Russia used one of these to gas that one theater held hostage), incredibly cost effective and even more addictive than heroin.

I'm wondering if there isn't a similar sort of danger here. If we manage to make it difficult or impossible to obtain traditional high explosives, what if terrorists and rebels everywhere begin to seriously tinker with thermobaric weapons? In principle, they are incredibly simple. A combustable substance is heated in an airtight container well above its autoignition point, then a small low-explosive charge (gunpowder, etc.) is detonated to scatter it. Getting it to detonate (instead of deflagrate) can be tricky, but there are so many different detonation-capable mixtures out there what if one of them is easy to achieve using nothing but gasoline or alcohol or hydrogen? Or steel or aluminum dust? Even a botched (deflagrating) bomb could have devestating effects, especially indoors where the fireball will effortlessly travel around corners.

So I'm not quite sure an ammonium nitrate replacement would be such a good thing.

Ehm, think I'll post this AC...

Finally! (1)

olip85 (1770514) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575111)

No more terrorism!

Iron (2, Insightful)

ChrisMaple (607946) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575123)

Although iron is typically deficient in soils and adding iron promotes growth, is the amount required to make a high nitrate fertilizer difficult to explode going to poison the soil over a period of several years? Will it make the iron content of foods too high? I don't know. Is there some agricultural expert here that can illuminate the subject?

Re:Iron (0, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575623)

Is there some agricultural expert here that can illuminate the subject?

They're called farmers, and they have no internet. If you really must know, I'm afraid you're going to need to leave the basement to find out.

If you outlaw ammonium nitrate ... (-1)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575181)

... only outlaws will have ammonium nitrates. The second amendment right to bear arms, includes the ability to make such arms, to prevent the tyrannical government from preventing the manufacture and sale of such weapons. And making my own ammunition, improvised explosives to keep these damned gimmint agents and tax collectors off private property is what keeping America safe. The only thing that will stop a bad guy with ammonia is a good guy with ammonia. Explosives don't kill people, people kill people. We need to have a national registry of mentally ill people, but definitely not a registry of people buying arms or ingredients for ammunition.

Is it Worth It? (1)

X!0mbarg (470366) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575183)

Ultimately, the question I pose is this: Is this fertilizer going to be worth all the trouble to make, distribute, use and clean up after? Another series of questions I have is; What kind of affect does this new product have on the nutrient value(s) of the crop it's used on? Are there any potential Health Hazards? Is it Toxic, or produce toxic effects, directly in the food, or indirectly, in the soil it's used on? After the side effects of genetically engineering Corn and Wheat and the now rampant intolerance to these two products, what is next? Maybe it's time to just get away from fossil fuels, like we've been pushing for for such a long time. After all, there seems to be a lot of uses for them in the bomb-making field, anyway. Determined terrorists will always find Something they can use to cause mayhem. I'm surprised there aren't better ways to 'sniff out' fertilizer-and-fuel based bombs already.

Said to be safe can be more dangerous. (1)

nosh (213252) | about a year and a half ago | (#43575523)

While making it harder for terrorists is nice, it might actually increase the rate of accidental fertilizer plant explosions.

See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppau_explosion for an example what happens if people think their fertilizer cannot explode so the easiest way to get some stuck in a silo out is a little charge of dynamite.

ammonia? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43575831)

i'm no chemist, but isn't ammonia in cleaning products? or is the ammonia in fertilizer different from the liquid in the cleaning fluid? why would you put a cleaning fluid on your grass and flowers? just asking.

I hadn't heard... (1)

Bartles (1198017) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576083)

...that the fertilizer in Texas was mixed with diesel fuel.

Re:I hadn't heard... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#43576545)

No, typical poorly worded /. summary.

How hard is it to chemically process back again? (1)

Michael Woodhams (112247) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576307)

Looking at this page [chemos.co.uk] I see that you could dissolve NH4NO3/FeSO4 mixture and add lead(II) citrate, which should cause the Fe to precipitate as citrate and the SO4 to precipitate with the lead, leaving NH4NO3 solution behind which can be dried and used in a bomb.

Practical problems abound - most notably, can you get lead citrate, and can you find a way to reuse it? However, I have only high school chemistry and it is unlikely that I found the optimal 'cleaning' reaction in a few minutes of web searching. Can anyone with more chemistry than me comment on whether there are practical ways for a mad bomber to separate out the NH4NO3?

Mining? (1)

rzzzwilson (748598) | about a year and a half ago | (#43576511)

Ask a mining engineer what could be substituted for ANFO, and the cost.
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