Ammonium nitrate fertilizer made it into the news last week when it helped ignite a massive explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that left at least 14 dead. However, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories has developed an alternative to ammonium nitrate that still helps plants grow — but can't be used so easily as an explosive compound. Engineer Kevin Fleming responded to an open call from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO, part of the US Department of Defense) for ideas on neutralizing ammonium nitrate — which is commonly used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Fewer IEDs would be good news

Fleming, who previously had experience in both organic gardening and with IEDs as part of the US military, discovered that adding iron sulfate helps stabilize the inherent properties of ammonium sulfate that make it easy to destabilize and very sensitive to shock when mixed with combustible materials like diesel. As such, IEDs using ammonium nitrate are heavily prevalent in Afghanistan — it was used in about 65 percent of the 16,300 homemade bombs found in the country last year. The compound is actually illegal in Afghanistan, but is widely available in neighboring Pakistan, where a quarter of the country's gross domestic product is dependent on agriculture.

With his new discovery, Fleming is hoping to cut back on ammonium nitrate's availability for those building IEDs and eventually save lives, though a move to his compound will take a lot of time and effort. "It's easy to get in large quantities," Fleming said. "The sheer volume of ammonium nitrate is gigantic." To help get his discovery out into the world, Fleming has decided not to patent or license the formula — instead, it will be freely available to anyone who wants to use it.