Ammonium nitrate prills used in ANFO at a potash mine.
25 kg (55 lb) sacks containing ANFO

ANFO (or AN/FO, for ammonium nitrate/fuel oil) is a widely used bulk industrial explosive.

It consists of 94% porous prilled ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) (AN), which acts as the oxidizing agent and absorbent for the fuel, and 6% number 2 fuel oil (FO).[1]

ANFO has found wide use in coal mining, quarrying, metal mining, and civil construction in applications where its low cost and ease of use may outweigh the benefits of other explosives, such as water resistance, oxygen balance, higher detonation velocity, or performance in small-diameter columns. ANFO is also widely used in avalanche hazard mitigation.[2]

It accounts for an estimated 80% of the 2.7×109 kg (6×10^9 lb) of explosives used annually in North America.[3]

The press and other media have used the term ANFO loosely and imprecisely in describing IEDs, in cases of fertilizer bombs (see Malicious use below).[4]

The use of ANFO originated in the 1950s.[5]


The chemistry of ANFO detonation is the reaction of ammonium nitrate with a long-chain alkane (CnH2n+2) to form nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water. In an ideal stoichiometrically balanced reaction, ANFO is composed of about 94.3% AN and 5.7% FO by weight. In practice, a slight excess of fuel oil is added, as underdosing results in reduced performance while overdosing merely results in more post-blast fumes.[6] When detonation conditions are optimal, the aforementioned gases are the only products. In practical use, such conditions are impossible to attain, and blasts produce moderate amounts of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

The fuel component of ANFO is typically diesel, but kerosene, coal dust, racing fuel, or even molasses have been used instead. Finely powdered aluminium in the mixture will sensitise it to detonate more readily.

ANFO is classified as a high explosive, meaning that it decomposes through detonation rather than deflagration at a velocity higher than the speed of sound in the material. ANFO has a moderate velocity compared to other industrial explosives, measuring 3,200 m/s in 130 mm (5 in) diameter, unconfined, at ambient temperature.

ANFO is a tertiary explosive, meaning that it cannot be set off by the small quantity of primary explosive in a typical blasting cap. A larger quantity of secondary explosive, known as a primer or a booster, must be used.[7] One or two sticks of dynamite were historically used; current practice is to use Tovex or cast boosters of pentolite (TNT/PETN or similar compositions).[8]

Industrial use

Charging a hole with ANFO for rock blasting

In the mining industry, the term ANFO specifically describes a mixture of solid ammonium nitrate prills and diesel fuel. Other explosives based on the ANFO chemistry exist; the most commonly used are emulsions. They differ from ANFO in the physical form the reactants take. The most notable properties of emulsions are water resistance and higher bulk density.

While the density of pure crystalline ammonium nitrate is 1700 kg/m3, individual prills of explosive-grade AN measure approximately 1300 kg/m3. Their lower density is due to the presence of a small spherical air pocket within each prill: this is the primary difference between AN sold for blasting and that sold for agricultural use. These voids are necessary to sensitize ANFO: they create so-called "hot spots".[9] Finely powdered aluminium can be added to ANFO to increase both sensitivity and energy; however, this has fallen out of favor due to cost.

ANFO has a bulk density of about 840 kg/m3. In surface mining applications, it is typically augured into boreholes by dedicated trucks that mix the AN and FO components immediately before the product is dispensed. In underground mining applications, ANFO is typically blow-loaded.

AN is highly hygroscopic, readily absorbing water from air. In humid environments, absorbed water interferes with its explosive function. AN is fully water-soluble; as such, it cannot be loaded into boreholes that contain standing water. When used in wet mining conditions, considerable effort must be taken to remove standing water and install a liner in the borehole; it is generally more productive to instead use a water-resistant explosive such as emulsion.

Regulatory Treatment

In most jurisdictions, ammonium nitrate need not be classified as an explosive for transport purposes; it is merely an oxidizer. Mines typically prepare ANFO on-site using the same diesel fuel that powers their vehicles. While many fuels can theoretically be used, the low volatility and cost of diesel make it ideal.

ANFO under most conditions is blasting cap–insensitive, so it is classified as a blasting agent[10] and not a high explosive.[11]

Ammonium nitrate is widely used as a fertilizer in the agricultural industry. It is also found in instant cold packs. In many countries, its purchase and use are restricted to buyers who have obtained the proper license.

In popular culture

The Discovery Channel show MythBusters commonly used ANFO (with the help of detonation professionals), especially in episode 26: "Salsa Escape, Cement Removal" and episode 125: "Knock Your Socks Off" as well as the series finale when they not only blew up a recreational vehicle, but recreated the most iconic explosion in the show's history when they used 5001 pounds of ANFO to blow up a cement truck.

It was used by Jim Caviezel's character in the 2006 film Déjà Vu in a domestic terrorism attack.

In the book The Third Day, The Frost by John Marsden, ANFO is used to blow up Cobblers Bay.

In a sub-plot of the book Executive Orders by Tom Clancy, anarchists make a truck bomb filled with ANFO but are caught before reaching their target.

In the book Battle Royale by Koshun Takami, students who attempt to bomb a school use ANFO.

In the movie The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan, The Joker uses the compound to hold two ferries hostage, and tries to make the people on each ferry detonate the other ferry.

In Stephen King's novel Desperation, novelist Johnny Marinville prevents the rest of the group from going forward, and proceeds to blow up the Pit and the ini inside with the ANFO, sacrificing himself.

It is often mentioned and used by protagonist Vic in NOS4A2 by Joe Hill.


Unmixed ammonium nitrate can decompose explosively and has been responsible for several industrial disasters, including the 1947 Texas City disaster in Texas City, Texas, the 2004 Ryongchon disaster in North Korea, and the 2013 West Fertilizer Company explosion in West, Texas. Environmental hazards include eutrophication in confined waters and nitrate/gas oil contamination of ground or surface water.[12]

Malicious use

ANFO was first used maliciously in 1970 by student protesters at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who learned how to make and use ANFO from a Wisconsin Conservation Department booklet entitled Pothole Blasting for Wildlife,[6][13] resulting in the Sterling Hall bombing.

The ANFO car bomb was adopted by the Provisional IRA in 1972 and, by 1973, the Troubles were consuming 47,000 lb of ammonium nitrate for the majority of bombs.[14] The IRA detonated an ANFO truck bomb on Bishopsgate in London in 1993, killing one and causing £350 million in damage. It has also seen use by groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and ETA. In 1992, Shining Path perpetrated the Tarata bombing in Lima, Peru using two ANFO truck bombs.

A more sophisticated variant of ANFO (ammonium nitrate with nitromethane as the fuel called ANNM) was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The Shijiazhuang bombings (Chinese: 靳如超爆炸案 or 石家庄"3·16"特大爆炸案) rocked the city of Shijiazhuang, China, on 16 March 2001. A total of 108 people were killed, and 38 others injured when, within a short time, several ANFO bombs exploded near four apartment buildings, and were characterized by China scholar Andrew Scobell as perhaps the worst terrorist act in the history of the People's Republic of China.

Improvised bombs made with agricultural-grade AN are less sensitive and less efficient than the explosive-grade variety. In November 2009, a ban on ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, and calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizers was imposed in the former Malakand Division – comprising the Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Swat, Chitral and Malakand districts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, by the NWFP government, following reports that those chemicals were used by militants to make explosives.

In April 2010, police in Greece confiscated 180 kg of ANFO and other related material stashed in a hideaway in the Athens suburb of Kareas. The material was believed to be linked to attacks previously carried out by the "Revolutionary Struggle" terrorist group.

In January 2010, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan also issued a decree banning the use, production, storage, purchase, or sale of ammonium nitrate, after an investigation showed militants in the Taliban insurgency had used the substance in bomb attacks.[15][16][17]

On 22 July 2011, an aluminium powder-enriched ANNM explosive, with total size of 950 kg (150 kg of aluminum powder), increasing demolition power by 10-30% over plain ANFO, was used in the Oslo bombing.[18][19]

On 13 April 2016, two suspected IRA members were stopped in Dublin with 67 kg of ANFO[20]


Ammonium nitrate and nitromethane (ANNM) is one of the most powerful improvised types of AN-based explosives. The relative effectiveness factor of ANNM varies depending on the mix, but does not exceed 1 (annmal = RE 1-1.1). ANNM usually contains a 60:40 (kinepak) mix of AN and NM (60% ammonium nitrate, 40% nitromethane by mass), though this results in a wet slurry. Sometimes, more AN is added to reduce liquidity and make it easier to store and handle, as well as providing an oxygen-balanced mix. ANNM is also more sensitive to shock than standard ANFO and is therefore easier to detonate. When ANNM detonates, the primary products are H2O, CO2 and N2, but NOx and other toxic gases are inevitably formed because of a negative oxygen balance. The balanced equation is as follows:

3NH4NO3 + 2CH3NO2 -> 4N2 + 2CO2 + 9H2O

Depending on the detonation impetus (for example a #6 versus a #10 detonator), the products of the detonation can be decidedly unstoichiometric.


  1. Cook, Melvin A. (1974). The Science of Industrial Explosives. IRECO Chemicals. p. 1. ASIN B0000EGDJT.
  2. Cook, Melvin A. (1974). The Science of Industrial Explosives. IRECO Chemicals. p. 2. ASIN B0000EGDJT.
  3. Edward M. Green (June 2006). "Explosives regulation in the USA" (PDF). Industrial Materials (465): 78. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  4. Jo Thomas (29 September 1997). "Jury to Be Picked in 2d Oklahoma Bomb Trial". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  5. Encyclopædia Britannica
  6. 1 2 Mathiak, Harold A. (1965). Pothole Blasting for Wildlife. Wisconsin Conservation Department, Madison, Wisconsin 53701. p. 11.
  7. Blasters' Handbook 15th Edition. E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company. 1969. pp. 64–68. ASIN B000JM3SD0.
  8. "Explosives - ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate - Fuel Oil)". Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  9. It was found by the IRA, in response to using low-brisance AN fertilizers, that "hot spots" can be created by blending powdered sugar into the ANFO mixture, effectively sensitizing the mixture to mining-standard prilled ammonium nitrate effectiveness in which the interaction of the detonation front with a spherical void concentrates energy. Blasting-grade AN prills are typically between 0.9 and 3.0 mm in diameter.
  10. Cook, Melvin A. (1974). The Science of Industrial Explosives. IRECO Chemicals. p. 16. ASIN B0000EGDJT.
  11. "Explosives and blasting agents". Occupation Safety & Health Administration. Retrieved March 3, 2013.
  12. P. Cosgrove. Ammogex Material Safety Data Sheet, Document No: HS-MSDS-03, Irish Industrial Explosives Ltd
  13. Mike Davis (2007). Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. New York: Verso. p. 53. ASIN B005DI9UVO. ISBN 1844671321. LCCN 2007274127..
  14. Henry Stanhope (8 November 1974). "The will to blow the lid off Ulster still remains strong". The Times. London.
  15. "Afghanistan bans chemical used to make bombs; protesters denounce killings". Times Union. Albany, N.Y. Archived from the original on 7 June 2010.
  16. "Afghanistan bans chemical used to make bombs". The Guardian. AP Foreign. 22 January 2010. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  17. Dexter Filkins (11 November 2009). "Bomb Material Cache Uncovered in Afghanistan". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  18. Stina Åshildsdatter Grolid; Unni Eikeseth (25 July 2011). "Slik virket trykkbølgen etter bomben" [Such seemed the shock wave after the bomb] (in Norwegian). NRK. Retrieved 28 July 2011.
  19. Stigset, Marianne; Kremer, Josiane; Treloar, Stephen (27 July 2011). "Police in Norway Extend Terror Probe Across Europe After Breivik Attacks". Bloomberg.
  20. Daniel Hickey (13 April 2016). "Two men appear in court charged with possession of 150kg of homemade explosives". Irish Independent. Dublin. Retrieved 16 April 2016.

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