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University of Kentucky researcher tries using coal ash to make fertilizer safer


A University of Kentucky researcher is trying to find a way to stop fertilizer from being used for bombs while keeping it safe for farmers to use on crops.

Though experiments, Darrell Taulbee has found that a mix of 20 percent coal ash to 80 percent ammonium nitrate would keep an explosion from burning through all its fuel and make the blast much weaker.

Two advantages of coal ash over other dilution substances are that it’s nontoxic and cheap, Taulbee said. Keeping the cost down is important because Taulbee wants the fertilizer to remain affordable and still be beneficial to crops.

“It doesn’t do any good to stop the explosion if it hurts the agriculture,” he said. “That’s its purpose.”

Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Taulbee thought of adding coal ash, a byproduct of coal-burning electric plants, to dilute the explosive chemical. He has been testing his theory over the past two years.

Although coal ash could contain some heavy metals that could damage crops, a 20 percent mix of it would be something to monitor rather than worry about, said Wilbur Frye, executive director of the office of consumer and environmental protection in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Ammonium nitrate supplies crops with nitrogen, an essential chemical in farming.

Lexington farmer Bob James estimated that nearly half the fertilizer used in the region contains ammonium nitrate. He said he used about 50 tons of ammonium nitrate this year.

Fewer manufacturers make ammonium nitrate now because of liability reasons, Taulbee and James said. Safer fertilizer could mean more manufacturers might make it again.

“If they can get the ash mixed, it could be a cost effective thing to do because it would not be a high risk commodity to handle,” James said.

Some farmers didn’t see a benefit to adding coal ash to the mix.

Lexington farmer Jim Barton said the ash would mean an extra step in the fertilizer’s production, increasing the cost.

“The big problem I see is that it’s going to be another process,” Barton said. “Every time you handle something, it adds to the cost.”

Besides the possibility of more manufacturers, Frye said he could see “no economic advantage to the farmers.”

If new regulation is necessary, Barton said he favored requiring a license to purchase and transport the fertilizer, similar to what’s done with pesticides and insecticides.

“A licensing thing probably would be better initially,” he said. “I think it’d be less expensive.”

There’s still a long way to go before the technology could leap to the public.

Taulbee is looking for additional funding for further research. He’ll follow up on testing the agricultural side, making sure the fertilizer will still benefit crops and turn more extensive blast testing over to federal agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He is confident his findings will hold up.

“We’ll just hand it over to those guys and say ‘Here, see if you can make it blow up,'” he said.

Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader,

–Associated Press

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