The West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion of last Wednesday killed many of the town’s first-responders and leveled buildings and homes and left behind a giant crater. I heard the question asked, how can fertilizer be so dangerous? (I even heard someone mention manure when referring to fertilizer, so there’s a chemistry lesson here.)
Close your eyes. (Oh wait, you can’t close your eyes and read at the same time!) Ok, read the next few sentences, THEN close your eyes.
Take a big huge breath with your eyes closed. As my yoga instructor would say “a big, juicy, fill-the-bottom-of-your-lungs yoga breath,” and then hold it for just a moment and let it all out. (Ok, now close your eyes and do it.)
Waiting for you to finish…
You just breathed in air that contained mostly nitrogen molecules, N2. Your lungs took in 1023 (or so) molecules of nitrogen and you did not use single one of them. They just took up space in your lungs. Dry air is composed of 79% nitrogen and 20% oxygen and then a smattering of other gases like carbon dioxide and argon. The nitrogen molecule is rock-solid stable. There is a triple bond between the nitrogen atoms and not much can cause that bond to break. But N is essential to our bodies: muscles and enzymes are composed of amino acids which have nitrogen atoms in them. How do they get there?
We eat them those N atoms. We eat plants, or eat animals that ate plants. If nitrogen is so hard to break apart, how can plants get the nitrogen? There are two principal methods for nature to get the N into the plants. One, lightning passes through the air and can break up nitrogen into compounds like nitrates containing both nitrogen and oxygen. Marvel at that, it takes a lighting strike! Or, bacteria on the roots of plants such as beans and peas can “fix” the nitrogen in the air. That’s it. So, the miracle of nitrogen-based fertilizer is that it helps nature along a bit by putting the N into plants. The stuff is explosive because it can release the N2 back to the air and the energy flies from the fertilizer into the atmosphere as that super stable triple bond forms.
So next time you take a yoga breath, first, say a prayer for that grieving town in Texas and next, remember you may not be able to touch those nitrogen molecules, but you need them all the same.