Beirut explosion: What caused Beirut explosion? What is ammonium nitrate?

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A huge explosion has caused extensive damage and killed more than 100 people in Beirut when warehouses storing highly explosive material exploded. The blast injured more than 4,000 and sent shockwaves which shattered windows, smashed buildings and shook the ground across the Lebanese capital.

Officials said they expect the death toll to rise further after the blast, with emergency workers having to dig through rubble to rescue people and remove the dead.

This is the most powerful explosion in years to hit Beirut, which is already reeling from an economic crisis and a surge in coronavirus infections.

The prime minister called for a day of mourning on Wednesday, and the country’s banking association said banks would be closed.

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross George Kettani told broadcaster Mayadeen: “What we are witnessing is a huge catastrophe. There are victims and casualties everywhere.”

Read More: Beirut explosion: Number of deaths set to rise, warns Red Cross

What caused Beirut explosion?

Officials did not say what caused the initial blaze which then set off the blast.

A security source and local media said it was started by welding work carried out on a hole in the warehouse.

President Michel Aoun said 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored for six years at the port without safety measures and said it was “unacceptable”.

He called for an emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.

The government said it as still struggling to establish the full scale of the disaster. Health Minister Hamad Hasan said: “There are many people missing.

“People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity.

“We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages.”

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Business Secretary Alok Sharma said the UK Government is “working quickly and at speed to look at a package of support” after the tragedy in Lebanon.

Speaking to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme ahead of a visit to Livingston, he said: “It is a terrible tragedy that’s unfolded in Lebanon and of course our thoughts are very much of those who have been injured and of course with the families of those who have lost their lives.

“The government there is looking to see what has happened and we will have to wait to see what comes out of that.

“But of course we’ve been very clear that we want to support that country at this particular time and we’re working quickly and at speed to look at a package of support for them.

“It is a very, very challenging time for people in Lebanon, in Beirut, and we understand the urgency of the situation.

“I hope very, very shortly the UK Government will be able to set out precisely what we will be doing in providing support for them.”

What is ammonium nitrate?

The chemical ammonium nitrate has been put forward as a potential cause of the catastrophic explosion.

Ammonium nitrate is used daily for fertiliser due to its nitrogen content, which is beneficial for plants.

The chemical itself is not explosive on its own, however it draws oxygen into a fire and can make it more explosive – known as an oxidiser.

Ammonium nitrate is also used in mining explosives.

Gabriel da Silva, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne told the Guardian ammonium nitrate only ignites under the right conditions.

He said: “You need extreme circumstances to set off an explosion.”

Mr da Silva added while the chemical can in fact put out a fire, if it is contaminated – for example with oil – it can be very explosive.

The chemical engineer said: “I think that’s what’s happened here.

“If you look at the smoke that came from the blast it’s this kind of blood red colour . That’s because of the nitrogen oxide air pollutants in it.”

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