Ammonium Nitrate - Is it worth the Risk?

Written for PULSE by Christopher Martin
Edited By: Stephanie Nardei

Time: 1 class period




During this exercise, students will learn that ammonium nitrate is used as a fertilizer and an explosive. They will study the chemistry of ammonium nitrate and consider the advantages and disadvantages of this compound. The dual nature of Ammonium Nitrate was illustrated by the Grandcamp disaster in 1947.

Students will be able to:
Compare the benefits of using ammonium nitrate and the risks.

National Science Education Standard
Content Standard B: The nature of technology

Design and Systems
Risk analysis is used to minimize the likelihood of unwanted side effects of a new technology.

Strand 3: Science in Personal and Social
Concept 2: Science and Technology in Society
Develop viable solutions to a need or problem.
PO.2 Recognize the importance of basing arguments on a thorough understanding of the core concepts and principles of science and technology.
PO 3.  Support a position on a science or technology issue.

Teacher Background
On April 16th 1947, a French freighter named the SS Grandcamp attempted to dock in Texas City, Texas on the Galveston Bay. The ship was making a delivery of ammonium nitrate fertilizer when the deck of the ship caught fire. Oblivious to the dangers of ammonium nitrate, the crew continued to dock. Later that morning, the freighter exploded creating a tidal wave that enveloped the shore and an explosion at kiloton scale. Many refineries that were located on the waterfront also caught on fire and continued to burn for 6 days after the explosion. It was estimated that a total of 567 people were killed, but it is believed that this number underestimates the total amount of casualties from this incident.

Related and Resource Websites
Texas City Disaster
The Texas City Disaster http://www.local1259iaff.org/disaster.html
The explosion: 50 years later http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/metropolitan/txcity/main.html
The Texas City Disaster on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_Disaster
Powerpoint of the Texas City Disaster http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~claym/coll_writing/tcd.ppt
Texas City Disaster on Answers.com http://www.answers.com/topic/texas-city-disaster
No. 1138: Texas City Disaster http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1138.htm

Ammonium Nitrate
Ammonium Nitrate on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonium_nitrate
Ammonium Nitrate on MSDS: http://www.jtbaker.com/msds/englishhtml/a6048.htm
Ammonium Nitrate on Answers.com http://www.answers.com/topic/ammonium-nitrate


The ammonium nitrate explosion of Texas City



Students prepare presentations about the benefits and hazards of ammonium nitrate.
Additional articles are available.


Embedded Assessment
The power point on global warming and the presentation to the class will provide opportunities for assessment of the students’ understanding of the risks involved with energy production.




PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

1996-2007, The University of Arizona
Last update: March 7, 2007
  Page Content: Rachel Hughes
Web Master: Travis Biazo