Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Security and the Soil

November 20th, 2009 · 3 Comments

In Pakistan’s chaotic North-West Frontier Province, there’s a movement afoot to temporarily ban the sale of fertilizers containing ammonium nitrate, which are frequently used in bombmaking. (The article mistakenly fingers urea fertilizers as the target of the ban.) This got us thinking about the reasons for ammonium nitrate’s continued popularity among the world’s farmers, despite the chemical’s lethal history. We actually tackled this conundrum for Slate some years back, and found that it was mostly a matter of cost—there just wasn’t a significantly cheaper alternative at that time, and farmers (especially owners of small operations in the developing world) are highly price conscious.

Alas, things don’t seem to have changed much over the past four years, despite frequent pronouncements from the fertilizer industry that ammonium nitrate is on the way out. Last year, Honeywell claimed to have made a breakthrough, by mixing in ammonium sulfate to create an inert compound. But because the technology has to be licensed to individual manufacturers, the cost remains prohibitive for most farmers in South and Central Asia.

The American military is obviously hip to this problem in Afghanistan, where they’ve adopted the gun buyback model to curtail the supply of ammonium nitrate:

The troops are paying twice what the farmers paid for it. Thus many farmers are voluntarily turning their ammonium nitrate (usually in 50 kg/110 pound bags) in for the instant profit. Other, non-explosive, fertilizers will be made available to the farmers, at equivalent cost to ammonium nitrate. Imports of ammonium nitrate into Afghanistan will be monitored. All this won’t make it impossible for the terrorists to get the stuff, but it will be more difficult. This will result in fewer, and less powerful, bombs.

Perhaps. But in a country as corrupt as Afghanistan, we think it would be no huge feat for the Taliban to continue importing what they need—though if the NWFP ban goes through, that importation will become a wee bit tougher.

What’s needed, then, is a good reason to kill ammonium nitrate production once and for all—an equally priced alternative that produces even better results. How much of the federal government’s anti-terror billions are being committed to such R&D? We’d wager a vanishingly small amount.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I’m no chemist but my understanding is that the nitrogen in ammonium nitrate is really really great for most crops. Since ammonia is also a nitrogen compound (as is urea) it is hard to beat for helping speed plant growth. Ammonium sulfate is good too, especially for soils lacking sulfur but not as cheap or effective overall.

  • Jordan

    Reading about ammonium nitrate fertilizes and the Haber process reminded me of my Nitrogen Day shirt that reads “Bat guano is an excellent source of nitrogen”.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Yeah, it really seems to be a bang-for-your-buck issue with ammonium nitrate. The big problem with urea, for example, is that a lot of the N is wasted:

    http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/cropsystems/DC0636.html

    The Honeywell alternative sounds promising, but I don’t see how it can ever compete on price, since the tech needs to be licensed. Ammonium nitrate is just so simple to manufacture, and the basic formulation is presumably off-patent.

    @Jordan: True! If only we could figure out how to farm the critters…

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