10-Year Effort Leads to Bomb-Safe Fertilizer

By Stew Magnuson
In the late 1990s, Honeywell researchers stumbled upon a molecule that would not only make a more potent fertilizer, but it was more stable than those found in traditional nitrate-based compounds that farmers spread on their fields to increase crop yields.

They immediately saw its potential.

It had only been five years since Timothy McVeigh used about 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. Honeywell is not known as an agri-business. Its researchers discovered the molecule while developing new flame retardant chemicals, said Murat Bicak, strategic business director of Sulf-N 26 at Honeywell Specialty Materials.  

“In the lab we identified this new molecule that is much safer than nitrate fertilizers but at the same time has very very strong and effective fertilizer properties,” Bicak said in an interview.

Honeywell patented the new Sulf-N 26 ammonium sulfate nitrate fertilizer, and spent a decade not only proving that it was safe and effective to use on crops, but also a viable alternative to the fertilizers that could be used for bombs.

Honeywell obtained SAFETY Act certification for the new fertilizer, which provides incentives for manufacturers to develop homeland security related products without fear of being sued in the event of a successful terrorist attack. The Department of Homeland Security grants the certification when a company can thoroughly document that the technology works as advertised. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also tested the new compound and gave it its seal of approval.

Simultaneously, the new compound had to undergo independent tests to prove that it was safe and effective to use on crops.

Honeywell plans on licensing Sulf-N 26 to companies that will in turn market it to farmers. It recently signed its first deal with a Boise, Idaho-based manufacturer, J.P. Simplot, which will sell it in the Western United States, Canada and Northern Mexico. The company is constructing a plant in California that is expected to begin producing the fertilizer in early 2013.

Honeywell hopes to license it to other manufacturers around the world, Bicak said. That would be welcome news to coalition forces in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is planting roadside bombs made from hard-to-detect ammonium nitrate fertilizers.

“That is on the horizon,” Bicak said of selling the product to such regions.

There are no U.S. laws that would compel anyone to buy the safer fertilizer rather than the traditional, more volatile compounds, Bicak said. However, since the Oklahoma City bombing, the federal government has kept a tighter rein on ammonium nitrate sales. Consumers of the product will be able to buy Sulf-N 26 without going through onerous bureaucratic hurdles, he said.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Homeland Security, Science and Technology

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