Science: Restless Molecule

Ammonium nitrate, whose blast wrecked Texas City last week (see NATIONAL AFFAIRS) is all too easy to make. The recipe: add ammonia to dilute nitric acid.

Chemically, ammonium nitrate is a salt, a combination of a base and an acid. But it is far from peaceful, as most other salts are. Instead of having a metal (e.g., sodium or iron) as the basic part of its molecule, it has an ammonium "radical" (one nitrogen atom and four hydrogen atoms) masquerading as a metal. Its acid part is also a radical: one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms (see chart).

Ammonium nitrate's outwardly peaceful molecule...

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