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Ammonium nitrate was at the heart of the massive Beirut explosion

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ammonium nitrate was at the heart of the massive beirut

Ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertiliser bombs, has been identified as the cause of one of the largest ever peacetime explosions at a warehouse in Beirut.

The chemical is an odourless crystalline substance that has been the cause of numerous industrial explosions and terrorist attacks over the decades.  

Experts say a fire in Beirut started after a spark from a welder likely ignited the highly reactive chemical, causing a blast the equivalent to three million kilotons of TNT.

There were 2,750 tonnes of the hazardous chemical held in the warehouse at the time of the explosion – which measured as the equivalent of a 3.5 earthquake.

The massive explosion created a mushroom cloud and left apocalyptic scenes in its wake, killing at least 100 people and leaving thousands more injured. 

Survivors of the blast which devastated Beirut overnight were sifting through the ruins of the city on Wednesday for bodies as the death toll rose to 100 with more than 4,000 wounded, and hospitals struggling to cope

Survivors of the blast which devastated Beirut overnight were sifting through the ruins of the city on Wednesday for bodies as the death toll rose to 100 with more than 4,000 wounded, and hospitals struggling to cope 

Death and injury from the explosion would have come in a number of phases, according to Dr David Caldicott from the Australian National University. 

‘Primary injuries are blast-related, as a consequence of the overpressure wave interacting with the hollow space in victims; lung injuries are often survived, but subsequently fatal, and bowel injuries are common.

‘Secondary injuries are caused by flying debris; effectively environmental shrapnel.

AMMONIUM NITRATE: DEADLY WHEN CONTAMINATED 

Ammonium nitrate contains two groups: 

  • Ammonia (NH4+) – a nitrogen and four hydrogens, which provide the fuel.
  • Nitrate that comprises of a nitrogen and three oxygens (NO3-) that provide the oxygen necessary for combustion.

It contains both groups required for a fire and if heated then the three components of the fire-triangle are present – that is fuel, oxygen and heat. 

An explosion occurs when a large amount of an energetic substance detonates, producing a large volume of confined, hot gases that expand and cause a shock wave. 

The video footage of the incident show initial white/grey smoke followed by an explosion that released a large cloud of red/brown smoke and a large white ‘mushroom cloud’. 

These indicate that the gasses released are white ammonium nitrate fumes, toxic, red/brown nitrous oxide and water. 

SOURCE: Stewart Walker, ammonium nitrate expert from Flinders University 

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‘Tertiary injuries are as a consequence of being thrown by the blast, and quaternary injuries by other features such as inhalation.’ 

When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by insurgent groups such as the Taliban and the IRA for improvised explosives.

Two tonnes of it was used to create the bomb in the 1995 Oklahoma City attack that destroyed a federal building, leaving 168 people dead. 

In agriculture, ammonium nitrate fertiliser is applied in granule form and quickly dissolves under moisture, allowing nitrogen to be released into the soil.

However, under normal storage conditions and without very high heat, it is difficult to ignite ammonium nitrate, Jimmie Oxley, a chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, said.

‘If you look at the video (of the Beirut explosion), you saw the black smoke, you saw the red smoke – that was an incomplete reaction,’ she said.

‘I am assuming that there was a small explosion that instigated the reaction of the ammonium nitrate – whether that small explosion was an accident or something on purpose I haven’t heard yet.’

That’s because ammonium nitrate is an oxidiser – it intensifies combustion and allows other substances to ignite more readily, but is not itself very combustible.

For these reasons, there are generally very strict rules about where it can be stored: for example, it must be kept away from fuels and sources of heat.

In fact, many countries in the European Union require that calcium carbonate to be added to ammonium nitrate to create calcium ammonium nitrate, which is safer.

In the United States, regulations were tightened significantly after the Oklahoma City attack, with inspections required if more than 2,000lbs of it are stored in one place.

Despite its dangers, Oxley said legitimate uses of ammonium nitrate in agriculture and construction have made it indispensable.

‘We wouldn’t have this modern world without explosives, and we wouldn’t feed the population we have today without ammonium nitrate fertilizer,’ she said.

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‘We need ammonium nitrate, we just need to pay good attention to what we’re doing with it.’

That doesn’t change how dangerous it can be. For example, an explosion at a Texas fertiliser plant in 2013 killed 15 and was ruled deliberate.

Another at a chemical plant in Toulouse, France in 2001 that killed 31 people but was accidental also involved ammonium nitrate.

Many of those killed or injured by the explosion in Beirut would have been hit by the shock wave or fire – but shrapnel from destroyed buildings would also have had a devastating impact.

The ammonium nitrate had remained unsecured in the warehouse for six years, according to Lebanon prime minister Hassan Diab, who said it had been taken from a ship and placed in the warehouse.

A general view of the harbour area with smoke billowing from an area of a large explosion, with damage and debris after a large explosion rocked the harbour area of Beirut

A general view of the harbour area with smoke billowing from an area of a large explosion, with damage and debris after a large explosion rocked the harbour area of Beirut

According to experts it actually takes very specific circumstances for ammonium nitrate to explode as it isn’t an explosive in its own right – it is an oxidiser that draws oxygen to a fire and makes it more intense. 

If the chemical becomes contaminated with something like oil then it can explode and at that point becomes highly explosive.

Speaking to the BBC Today Programme, Philip Ingram, an expert on chemical weapons, said it was appalling so much of the chemical was stored in one place.

‘It has been responsible for some of the largest accidental explosions we’ve seen since it has been used,’ Ingram said.

‘In its pure, well stored, basic form it is relatively safe, but when it is poorly stored, in a confined space, over time it gets contaminated and something can spark it off.

‘It generates its own heat and once that is started it continues to generate it and over time it can lead to a high order explosion like the one we’ve seen in Beirut.’  

Firefighters spent the night battling blazes at the port, which were still burning as the sun came up on Wednesday

Firefighters spent the night battling blazes at the port, which were still burning as the sun came up on Wednesday 

Because of this highly reactive state when contaminated and the fact it is cheap and readily available, ammonium nitrate has become a chemical of choice for terrorists.

In these improvised explosives the detonator goes off first and the energy causes the ammonium nitrate to vaporise and become a gas. 

This forms large amounts of oxygen as the molecules breakdown and drives the explosion to become bigger. 

It has been used in a number of terrorist attacks including the Oklahoma City bomb in the US and a number of IRA attacks on the UK. 

These include the Bishopsgate attack in April 1993 that left 40 injured and a 40ft wide crater and a 3,300lb bomb in Manchester in June 1996 that left 2000 injured but nobody died due to a phone warning an hour before the blast. 

Other incidents have occurred where ammonium nitrate in storage or transit has caused an explosion, with widespread destruction to the surrounding area. 

Incidents in Australia involving transportation include a truck carrying ammonium nitrate that experienced an electrical fault and a fire and exploded, killing three people in Taroom, Queensland on August 30 1972.

Another incident in Wyandra, Queensland on September 6 2014 saw a truck carrying ammonium nitrate explode after rolling – destroying a bridge. 

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Four months later than planned, the mobile phone tracing tool will be launched across the country

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four months later than planned the mobile phone tracing tool will be launched across the country

MILLIONS of Britons will be urged to download the mobile tracing app which is finally being launched nationwide today – four months late.

Health officials hope it will play a crucial role in containing the virus at a critical point, when cases are on the rise again.

But the app is likely to create even more demand for tests at a time when labs are already under huge pressure and thousands of patients have been unable to book slots.

The Department of Health will tonight launch a major TV advertising campaign to increase uptake by urging the public to ‘protect your loved ones, get the app’.

Officials hope that between 15 and 50 per cent of the population in England and Wales will use it. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already launched their own versions.

The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus such as on public transport, in a shop or among their friends and family.

The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus

The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus

The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus

They will then receive a message telling them to self-isolate for 14 days and to book a test, although only if they develop symptoms. The device will also enable users to check their symptoms online if they are worried they might have the virus and to book a test if necessary.

Additionally, they will be encouraged to use their apps to scan the ‘QR code’ at any pubs, restaurants and leisure centres they visit in case there is a virus outbreak linked to that venue. Their contact details will then be available for tracing efforts. The app, which uses a system developed by Apple and Google, has been tested on the Isle of Wight and in the London borough of Newham.

The app was meant to have been launched in the middle of May but Health Secretary Matt Hancock was forced to abandon the technology after it failed to work on the majority of smartphones.

Yesterday Mr Hancock said: ‘We are at a tipping point in our efforts to control the spread of this virus. With infection rates rising we must use every tool at our disposal to prevent transmission, including the latest technology.

‘Today’s launch marks an important step forward in our fight against this invisible killer and I urge everyone who can to download and use the app to protect themselves and their loved ones.’

Government officials aren’t setting a target for the percentage of the population they want to download the app.

But Oxford research has shown that even if just 15 per cent use it, then there could be a significant reduction in positive cases, hospital admissions and even deaths. The Department of Health admits the technology still struggles to calculate precise distances, which means some users may be wrongly told to self-isolate even if they have been more than two metres away from an infected person. Close contact is defined as being within two metres of someone for 15 minutes, but in early trials of the app some people have received alerts when they were four metres away.

Health officials hope it will play a crucial role in containing the virus at a critical point, when cases are on the rise again

Health officials hope it will play a crucial role in containing the virus at a critical point, when cases are on the rise again

Health officials hope it will play a crucial role in containing the virus at a critical point, when cases are on the rise again

Officials say that about 30 per cent of people told to self-isolate may have been more than two metres away from a positive case but they stress the difference is marginal and the majority are still likely to have still been 2.1 or 2.2 metres away. They insist the technology is far more precise compared with other apps used elsewhere in the world, although they admit there is ‘more work that could be done’ to improve it.

Baroness Harding, executive chairman of the NHS Test and Trace Programme, said: ‘We want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to engage with England’s NHS Test and Trace service. This is a welcome step in protecting those around us.’

Last night Department of Health officials acknowledged the app would increase pressure on the country’s testing services but they said the capacity was increasing, and demand from other members of the public was falling.

Last week Boris Johnson was forced to admit that the country had run out of tests following a surge in people trying to book them, partly brought about by children going back to school and spreading bugs.

To encourage the public to download the new version, emotive TV adverts will be broadcast at 7pm tonight with personal stories from families affected by the virus.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the app must be ‘fit for purpose’.

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Avocados can be cryogenically frozen and shipped to MARS, say experts who revived frozen shoots

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avocados can be cryogenically frozen and shipped to mars say experts who revived frozen shoots

Hollywood has suggested that space faring heroes living on Mars will have a menu of just potatoes, but scientists are working on a way to add avocados to the list.

Researchers at the University of Queensland have designed a method that cryopreserves the shoots and revive them later to grow a healthy plant.

The shoots are placed in an aluminum foil strip and then in a ‘cryotube’ before being stored in liquid nitrogen.

The team says it takes about 20 minutes for the shoots to recover and within two months, the plants regrew leaves.

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Researchers at the University of Queensland have designed a method that cryopreserves the shoots and revive them later to grow a healthy plant (pictured)

Researchers at the University of Queensland have designed a method that cryopreserves the shoots and revive them later to grow a healthy plant (pictured)

Researchers at the University of Queensland have designed a method that cryopreserves the shoots and revive them later to grow a healthy plant (pictured)

Professor Neena Mitter: ‘I suppose you could say they are space-age avocados – ready to be cryo-frozen and shipped to Mars when human flight becomes possible.’

The team set out on this mission to find a solution to protect the world’s supplies of avocados, which are commonly face shortages throughout the year and around the world.

Mitter joked saying their work is not only about protecting the fruit, but also ‘ensuring we meet the demand of current and future generations for their smashed ‘avo’ on toast.’

This is the first time scientists have successfully created a cryopreservation method for avocados – something that has been in the works for more than 40 years.

Hollywood has suggested that space faring heroes living on Mars will have a menu of just potatoes, but scientists are working on a way to add avocados to the list (stock)

Hollywood has suggested that space faring heroes living on Mars will have a menu of just potatoes, but scientists are working on a way to add avocados to the list (stock)

Hollywood has suggested that space faring heroes living on Mars will have a menu of just potatoes, but scientists are working on a way to add avocados to the list (stock) 

University of Queensland PhD student Chris O’Brien, who developed the first critical steps, said:’ The aim is to preserve important avocado cultivars and key genetic traits from possible destruction by threats like bushfires, pests and disease such as laurel wilt – a fungus which has the capacity to wipe out all the avocado germplasm in Florida.’

‘Liquid nitrogen does not require any electricity to maintain its temperature, so by successfully freeze avocado germplasm, it’s an effective way of preserving clonal plant material for an indefinite period.’

Pictured is the move 'The Martian,' as Matt Damon's character is on Mars farming potatoes

Pictured is the move 'The Martian,' as Matt Damon's character is on Mars farming potatoes

Pictured is the move ‘The Martian,’ as Matt Damon’s character is on Mars farming potatoes 

Cryopreservation is typically used to freeze sperm and eggs, which is stored at -320 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, the process has also been used on other plants including bananas, grape vines and apple.

O’Brien teamed up with Mitter and Dr. Raquel Folgado from The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in California to perfect his technique.

They began with a clonal shoot tip developed from tissue culture propagation technology, which is a technique used to maintain plant cells.

This allowed up to 500 avocado plants to grow from just one shoot-tip.

However, O’Brien said the initial work resulted in the team sifting through brown mush.

The shoots are placed in an aluminum foil strip and then in a 'cryotube' before being stored in liquid nitrogen

The shoots are placed in an aluminum foil strip and then in a 'cryotube' before being stored in liquid nitrogen

The shoots are placed in an aluminum foil strip and then in a ‘cryotube’ before being stored in liquid nitrogen

The team says it takes about 20 minutes for the shoots to recover and within two months, the plants regrew leaves

The team says it takes about 20 minutes for the shoots to recover and within two months, the plants regrew leaves

The team says it takes about 20 minutes for the shoots to recover and within two months, the plants regrew leaves

‘There was no protocol so I experimented with priming the tips with Vitamin C, and used other pre-treatments like sucrose and cold temperature to prepare the cells – it was a question of trial and error to get the optimal mixture and correct time points,’ he said.

After some trial and error, the group placed the shoot tips on an aluminum foil strip.

This was key to allowing it to quickly cool and rewarm without becoming a slush.

And then the strips were put into ‘cryotubes’ that were stored in liquid nitrogen.

‘It takes about 20 minutes to recover them,’ Mr O’Brien said.

‘In about two months they have new leaves and are ready for rooting before beginning a life in the orchard.’

The team achieved 80 percent success in regrowing frozen Reed avocado plants and 60 percent with the Velvick cultivar.

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Cuvier’s beaked whale records longest known dive lasting almost four HOURS

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cuviers beaked whale records longest known dive lasting almost four hours

A whale has stunned scientists by staying submerged underwater for almost four hours. 

The mammal belongs to the species Curvier’s beaked whale, which is known for their diving prowess. 

But the recorded dive time of 222 minutes is unheard of, and researchers estimate the animal’s oxygen reserves would have run out after just 77 minutes.   

Scientists are unable to explain how a mammal can be without oxygen for so long but believe the species can use anaerobic respiration for several hours, if necessary. 

As a result, Cuvier’s beaked whales likely have an exceptionally low metabolism, larger than usual oxygen stores and the ability to withstand stinging lactic acid.

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A Cuvier's beaked whale has stunned scientists by staying submerged underwater for almost four hours, a new record

A Cuvier's beaked whale has stunned scientists by staying submerged underwater for almost four hours, a new record

A Cuvier’s beaked whale has stunned scientists by staying submerged underwater for almost four hours, a new record 

Scientists are unable to explain how a mammal can be without oxygen for so long but believe the species can use anaerobic respiration for several hours, if necessary

Scientists are unable to explain how a mammal can be without oxygen for so long but believe the species can use anaerobic respiration for several hours, if necessary

Scientists are unable to explain how a mammal can be without oxygen for so long but believe the species can use anaerobic respiration for several hours, if necessary

Previous calculations suggest these relatively diminutive whales should only remain submerged for about 33 minutes before their oxygen runs out.

At this point they switch to anaerobic respiration, a process done without oxygen which is less efficient and produces lactic acid. 

Lactic acid is the same burning feeling in muscles people experience after prolonged or strenuous exercise. 

However, researchers in the latest study refined this calculation and believe anaerobic respiration begins 77.7 minutes into a dive. 

Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina tried to record some dives from this remarkable and little-known species. 

This task was made tricky by the fact the whales spend less than two minutes at the surface after completing one of their dive, making the act of sticking a tag on a dorsal tricky. 

A total of 23 tags were added to individual whales in the waters off Cape Hatteras, USA, recording more than 3,600 dives.

Researchers in the latest study believe anaerobic respiration begins 77.7 minutes into a dive, more than double the previous estimate of 33 minutes

Researchers in the latest study believe anaerobic respiration begins 77.7 minutes into a dive, more than double the previous estimate of 33 minutes

Researchers in the latest study believe anaerobic respiration begins 77.7 minutes into a dive, more than double the previous estimate of 33 minutes 

Tthe two longest dives were recorded in 2017 at 222 and 173 minutes. These were not included in the dataset because the dives occurred just 24 and 17 days after a one hour exposure to a Navy sonar signal, respectively.

Tthe two longest dives were recorded in 2017 at 222 and 173 minutes. These were not included in the dataset because the dives occurred just 24 and 17 days after a one hour exposure to a Navy sonar signal, respectively.

The two longest dives were recorded in 2017 at 222 and 173 minutes. These were not included in the dataset for the study because the dives occurred just 24 and 17 days after a one hour exposure to a Navy sonar signal, respectively

How and why do Cuvier’s beaked whales dive for so long?  

Cuvier’s beaked whales are described as the ‘true megastars’ of the diving world.

Researchers say they are capable of reaching depths of almost 3,000 metres (1.86 miles).

Adults measure up to 7m (23 ft) long and weigh up to 3,000 kg (6,600 lbs). 

Cuvier’s have a cone-shaped head, with a stubby beak and the short mouth-line curves upwards and looks like a smile.

The torpedo-shaped body is grey due to algae and appears to be highly scarred. This is caused either by fights with other males and the unique oval marks are caused by cookie-cutter sharks.

They live in waters all around the world, except for around Antarctica and the Arctic, and eat fish and squid from deep in the ocean. 

They spend very little time o the surface between dives, often less than two minutes before submerging again.  

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It revealed the shortest dive was 33 minutes. Experts know 95 per cent of all dives, from all marine mammals, are completed before the oxygen runs out.  

Using the data from the 3,680 dives, the 95 per cent threshold puts the onset of anaerobic respiration — the point where oxygen reserves have been depleted — at 77 minutes.

However, the two longest dives were recorded in 2017 at 222 and 173 minutes.

These were not included in the dataset because the dives occurred just 24 and 17 days after a one hour exposure to a Navy sonar signal, respectively. 

As whales use echolocation to communicate and direct themselves, this may have triggered an unusual response in the animal leading to unusually elongated dives. 

However, the researchers say in the study that these extraordinarily long dives are ‘perhaps more indicative of the true limits of the diving behaviour of this species’.

Their ability to stay submerged for so long can only be explained by an unrivalled ability to tolerate anaerobic respiration. 

‘It really did surprise us that these animals are able to go so far beyond what predictions suggest their diving limits should be’, says Dr Nicola Quick, who led the study. 

Referring to the exceptionally long dive of three hours and 42 minutes, Dr Quick said: ‘We didn’t believe it at first; these are mammals after all, and any mammal spending that long under water just seemed incredible.’ 

The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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