What Is Urea Nitrate?

Urea nitrate is a fertilizer-based high explosive that has been used in improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and various other terrorist acts elsewhere in the world, like the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. It has a destructive power similar to better-known ammonium nitrate explosives, with a velocity of detonation between 11,155 ft/s (3,400 m/s) and 15,420 ft/s (4,700 m/s).

Urea nitrate is produced in one step by reaction of urea with nitric acid. This is an exothermic reaction, so steps must be taken to control the temperature.

Urea nitrate explosions may be initiated using a blasting cap.

Chemistry:

Ball-and-stick models of the ions in urea nitrate.
Ball-and-stick models of the ions in urea nitrate.

Urea contains a carbonyl group. The more electronegative oxygen atom pulls electrons away from the carbon forming a greater electron density around the oxygen, giving the oxygen a partial negative charge and forming a polar bond. When nitric acid is presented, it ionizes. A hydrogen cation contributed by the acid is attracted to the oxygen and forms a covalent bond [electrophile H+]. The electronegative NO3− ion then is attracted to the positive hydrogen ion. This forms an ionic bond and hence the compound urea nitrate.

(NH2)2CO (aq) + HNO3 (aq) → (NH2)2COHNO3 (s)

The compound is favored by many amateur explosive enthusiasts as a principal explosive for use in larger charges. In this role it acts as a substitute for ammonium nitrate based explosives. This is due to the ease of acquiring the materials necessary to synthesize it, and its greater sensitivity to initiation compared to ammonium nitrate based explosives.

Hydrogen

Spectrum = gas discharge tube filled with hydrogen H2. Used with 1,8kV, 18mA, 35kHz. ≈8" length.
Spectrum = gas discharge tube filled with hydrogen H2. Used with 1,8kV, 18mA, 35kHz. ≈8″ length.

Hydrogen is a chemical element with chemical symbol H and atomic number 1. With an atomic weight of 1.00794 u, hydrogen is the lightest element on the periodic table. Its monatomic form (H) is the most abundant chemical substance in the Universe, constituting roughly 75% of all baryonic mass. Non-remnant stars are mainly composed of hydrogen in the plasma state. The most common isotope of hydrogen, termed protium (name rarely used, symbol 1H), has one proton and no neutrons.

The universal emergence of atomic hydrogen first occurred during the recombination epoch. At standard temperature and pressure, hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, nonmetallic, highly combustible diatomic gas with the molecular formula H2. Since hydrogen readily forms covalent compounds with most nonmetallic elements, most of the hydrogen on Earth exists in molecular forms such as water or organic compounds. Hydrogen plays a particularly important role in acid–base reactions because most acid-base reactions involve the exchange of protons between soluble molecules. In ionic compounds, hydrogen can take the form of a negative charge (i.e., anion) when it is known as a hydride, or as a positively charged (i.e., cation) species denoted by the symbol H+. The hydrogen cation is written as though composed of a bare proton, but in reality, hydrogen cations in ionic compounds are always more complex. As the only neutral atom for which the Schrödinger equation can be solved analytically, study of the energetics and bonding of the hydrogen atom has played a key role in the development of quantum mechanics.

H2 spectra using a 600lpm diffraction grating.
H2 spectra using a 600lpm diffraction grating.

Hydrogen gas was first artificially produced in the early 16th century by the reaction of acids on metals. In 1766–81, Henry Cavendish was the first to recognize that hydrogen gas was a discrete substance, and that it produces water when burned, the property for which it was later named: in Greek, hydrogen means “water-former”.

Industrial production is mainly from steam reforming natural gas, and less often from more energy-intensive methods such as the electrolysis of water. Most hydrogen is used near the site of its production site, the two largest uses being fossil fuel processing (e.g., hydrocracking) and ammonia production, mostly for the fertilizer market. Hydrogen is a concern in metallurgy as it can embrittle many metals, complicating the design of pipelines and storage tanks.

Hydrogen gas (dihydrogen or molecular hydrogen) is highly flammable and will burn in air at a very wide range of concentrations between 4% and 75% by volume. The enthalpy of combustion is −286 kJ/mol:

2 H2(g) + O2(g) → 2 H2O(l) + 572 kJ (286 kJ/mol)

Hydrogen gas forms explosive mixtures with air in concentrations from 4–74% and with chlorine at 5–95%. The explosive reactions may be triggered by spark, heat, or sunlight. The hydrogen autoignition temperature, the temperature of spontaneous ignition in air, is 500 °C (932 °F). Pure hydrogen-oxygen flames emit ultraviolet light and with high oxygen mix are nearly invisible to the naked eye, as illustrated by the faint plume of the Space Shuttle Main Engine, compared to the highly visible plume of a Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster, which uses an ammonium perchlorate composite. The detection of a burning hydrogen leak may require a flame detector; such leaks can be very dangerous. Hydrogen flames in other conditions are blue, resembling blue natural gas flames.

The destruction of the Hindenburg airship was a notorious example of hydrogen combustion and the cause is still debated. The visible orange flames in that incident were the result of a rich mixture of hydrogen to oxygen combined with carbon compounds from the airship skin.

H2 reacts with every oxidizing element. Hydrogen can react spontaneously and violently at room temperature with chlorine and fluorine to form the corresponding hydrogen halides, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride, which are also potentially dangerous acids.

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