Enviros blame fracking for deadly Texas fertilizer plant explosion

“The U.S. could soon be home to a lot more ammonia factories — not a comforting thought after a deadly explosion at an ammonia fertilizer plant in Texas on Wednesday evening. You can blame the fracking boom.”

Read more at Grist.

9 thoughts on “Enviros blame fracking for deadly Texas fertilizer plant explosion”

  1. My comment there:

    The demand for fertilizer isn’t driven by the low cost of natural gas. The demand for fertilizer is driven by the high cost of food.

    The high cost of food is caused, to a large extent, by the fact that about half of America’s corn crop is burned up as ethanol-blend motor fuel (mostly E10), due to “renewable” fuel mandates.

    If you want to reduce the demand for fertilizer, and reduce world hunger, the way to do it is to end ethanol fuel mandates.

  2. What an incredible conflation of anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate. I’m not sure what happened at West, TX, because it is very early in the investigation and all I’ve seen in the media is speculation. Ammonia usually requires an external energy source to burn since the net energy doesn’t cover the activation energy. Grist’s list of “ammonia” incidents are all ammonium nitrate. Very different chemicals with very different properties, as anyone who was awake during middle school science should know. Ammonium nitrate is a great, high nitrogen fertilizer and as most of us know can be quite an effective and cheap explosive.
    My first industrial employment was at a location in New Orleans that had two ammonia plants and a couple of 6,000 ton storage tanks. Ammonia produced by those plants was mainly sent north via pipeline although some was used as feed stocks for urea, melamine and other basic chemicals. The concern from an ammonia incident was leaks. I don’t think anyone believed you could have a serious fire or explosion from ammonia. The natural gas feeding the ammonia plants was a fire and explosion concern.
    Anhydrous ammonia is usually applied as a fertilizer by subsurface injection. Anhydrous ammonia is also used in refrigeration systems. I don’t know that anyone is concerned about explosions from NH3. As the price of natural gas increased, the cost competitiveness of US ammonia decreased and it was replaced by foreign sources. I’m sure the fine folks at Grist are right, with lower natural gas prices, there will be an increase in anhydrous ammonia production. Maybe my former employer will convert the idled ammonia plant back from a failed methanol venture to ammonia production.
    I doubt ammonia use in the US will change much from fracking and will still be dependent on demand. Just the source of the ammonia will shift. I also doubt there is any serious concern about anhydrous ammonia explosions like West, TX. Did they find a way to rupture a 10k gallon tank of anhydrous and set it off as a fuel air explosion with ammonium nitrate?
    Are these folks purposely confusing anhydrous ammonia with ammonium nitrate, or are they just that chemically dense?

  3. The flammable range for anhydrous ammonia in air ranges from 16 to 25%, and a powerful explosion can result if such a mixture finds an ignition source. Indeed, ammonia will burn!

  4. I didn’t say ammonia wouldn’t burn, I said it needed an external energy source to sustain combustion. The ammonia flares I used in a couple of locations had natural gas or propane ignition that had to run constantly to burn the ammonia. If the ignitor failed, no flame from the flare. I can’t find any reports of explosions from ammonia fires and few reports of ammonia fires that really weren’t something else burning. Ammonia has been touted as a vehicle fuel because unlike gasoline there is no explosion hazard and the products of combustion are N2 and H2O.

  5. Ammonia in the presence of a large natural gas leak, on the other hand, would be a major problem.

  6. I haven’t followed this story very closely and have a question for Bob et al. Assuming that an ammonia storage tank ruptured due to the fire and this resulted in a dispersed ammonia aerosol, would there be sufficient oxygen available to create an air-fuel bomb explosion?

  7. On page 140 of “Flammable Hazardous Materials, Second Edition” by James H. Meidl, you can find references to anhydrous ammonia burning and exploding during fire situations. Note that the Third Edition is now current. I find no surprise that your burners required assistance to remain lit. The flammable range of this gas is unusually narrow so that the flame could easily be extinguished by a puff of wind. However, with a large fire already in progress (as at the West, TX event), all bets are off. I am a former firefighter and “Flammable Hazardous Materials” was one of our textbooks, and good enough that I bought my own copy.

  8. YES! To the great consternation of firefighters and plant owners, this has been demonstrated quite a few times, including at the West, TX event.

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