Typically the threat of an improvised explosive device (IED), a homemade and often very crude explosive designed to maximize damage, is harder for an audience living and working on American soil to conceptualize. But following the Boston bombings in April, it’s become all too clear.
Those events, as terrible and unimaginable as they were, are just a small fraction of the IED explosions that take place around the world.
Unfortunately, IED events abroad in places like Afghanistan have increased 42 percent over two years, from more than 9,000 individual instances in 2009 to 16,000 events in 2011, according to the Department of Defense (DOD).
One main ingredient used in IEDs abroad is something as seemingly benign as fertilizer. Nitrogen-based fertilizer was even the main ingredient in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1995.
Because fertilizer is used to cultivate crops regardless of IED uses, Kevin Fleming, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, has developed a new type of fertilizer that doesn’t mix with fuel and detonate like the types of fertilizer typically used in IEDs.
Fleming, who has trained soldiers in how to maneuver and avoid IEDs and retired from Sandia in February, approached the problem of IEDs in a slightly different way.
An avid organic gardener since a young age, Fleming combined his green thumb with his knowledge of the typical chemical makeup of IEDs to develop a formula that cultivates only lush and thriving plants, according to a news release from Sandia.
The Formula for Safer Fertilizer
Fertilizers can contain calcium ammonium nitrate, from which ammonium nitrate is derived. Ammonium nitrate is highly explosive when mixed with fuel. Of the IEDs used in Afghanistan in 2012 that killed or injured almost 2,000 Americans, nearly 70 percent were made using ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer. At the end of 2012, Afghanistan banned ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers, although they are still accessible from neighboring nations like Pakistan, according to the DOD.
With a loophole like that, a ban may not be as effective as governments would hope. Which is where Fleming and Sandia come in.
By separating the ammonium ion from the nitrate ion, the explosive qualities of the chemical compound can be neutralized. Fleming knew this and through testing and research developed a new formula for fertilizer, one utilizing ammonium sulfate and iron nitrate, which are not detonable, even when mixed with an otherwise explosive fuel.
“It will make detonable types of fertilizer harder to get,” Fleming said in an interview with Healthline.
While the replacement of detonable fertilizer with Fleming’s version across the globe won’t happen immediately, the hope is that supplementing the existing ammonium nitrate with an ammonium sulfate and iron nitrate formula will limit IED construction and make it all the more difficult.
Obstruction of IED construction seems like enough of a coup for any one lab, but the new formula is actually great for cultivating crops. The iron component in Fleming’s formula can acidify soil, and therefore bring alkaline soil closer to a neutral pH, significantly improving crop yield.
"The closer you can get to organic gardens, the soil is going to be better off in the long run," Fleming said."In the best case scenario it’s going to make soils more fertile and bring the pH to neutral. And it’ll take less fertilizer to do that. The crops would be better."
Helping others cultivate crops isn’t the only area Sandia is looking to improve.
Instead of patenting the new fertilizer formula, Sandia has opted to waive ownership rights to optimize the fertilizer’s potential in limiting IED threat and maximizing public good. However, a fully approved product is still a couple steps away, following proper testing and safety precautions, Fleming says.
“I talked to a couple patent attorneys about what would be the quickest way to get [the fertilizer] to market and that was without a patent so anybody could take it and run with it,” Fleming said.
While Fleming and Sandia have done their part in clamping down on IED danger, they’ve also come up with a sentiment and approach to anti-terrorism measures that could have a worldwide impact.
Ultimately, Fleming hopes their work gets people talking about other improvements to wartime situations.
“The thing is this is just one solution," he said. "I hope that it gets a lot of people talking and brainstorming. Brainstorming of many minds is the key to success."