An engineer who trained US soldiers to avoid improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has developed a fertilizer that helps plants grow but can’t detonate the type of bomb that was used in the Boston Marathon. It’s an alternative to ammonium nitrate, an agricultural staple that is also the raw ingredient in most of the IEDs in Afghanistan.
Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is illegal in Afghanistan but legal in neighboring Pakistan, where a quarter of the gross domestic product and half the workforce depend on agriculture. When mixed with a fuel such as diesel, ammonium nitrate is highly explosive. It was used in about 65% of the 16,300 homemade bombs in Afghanistan in 2012, according to government reports. There were 9,300 IED events in the country in 2009.
IEDs have killed more American troops than any other weapon during the 11-year war in Afghanistan. About 1,900 troops were killed or wounded in IED attacks in 2012, 60% of American combat casualties.
Ammonium nitrate explosives are not limited to Afghanistan. More than 700 IED attacks take place outside Afghanistan each month, and more than 17,000 global IED events have occurred in 123 countries in the past two years. The United States witnessed how deadly ammonium nitrate can be in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.
US efforts to curb the flow of ammonium nitrate fertilizer into Afghanistan through seizures, export controls and diplomacy have had limited success. The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) was established by the Department of Defense in 2006 to reach out to the armed services, private sector and academia for counter-IED technologies. JIEDDO last year issued a call for ideas on how to neutralize ammonium nitrate as an IED explosive.
Optical engineer Kevin Fleming took on the challenge and developed a fertilizer formula as good as, if not better, than ammonium nitrate, but not detonable. He says, "I looked at it differently. I’ve been an organic gardener since I was eight. We had five acres in Las Cruces with the problems of calcareous soils that are very similar to those in the Middle East. I know something about commercial farming."
He also knew the chemistry of IEDs from years of training soldiers how to deal with them.
His company (Scandia) has decided not to patent or license the formula, but to make it freely available in hopes of saving lives.