Ammonia can be produced from nitrogen and hydrogen and then transformed into saltpeter which is the starting material for many explosive substances. Black powder was the first explosive and at the same time the first propellant for projectiles. Its main ingredient is potassium nitrate, also called saltpeter. Potassium nitrate is a salt of nitric acid.

Black powder develops a great deal of smoke upon ignition. Today mostly the smokeless nitrocellulose (guncotton) is used as a base substance of propelling and explosive charges, which is produced when ordinary cotton and nitric acid react.


The “gur-dynamite” invented by Alfred Nobel in 1866 was extremely successful as an explosive. Dynamite consists of a naturally occurring soil (Kieselgur), called diatomaceous earth that is soaked with nitroglycerine. Nitroglycerine contains about 18.5 % nitrogen. It is bound in the molecule, but has a strong tendency to reconvert into atmospheric nitrogen. That is the reason why nitroglycerine is so explosive.

Gur-dynamite, Nobel’s invention, was easier to handle than pure nitroglycerine. The new explosive was used worldwide. The Panama Canal, the Gotthard Tunnel, the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway and many other transport routes were blasted open with it. But it also came into use in wars with devastating effects. In his testament, Nobel donated a great part of his enormous fortune to the Nobel Foundation that until today awards the Nobel Prizes. He did not want to be remembered as the dynamite king only.


Sometimes explosives are used for safety. Airbag systems contain sodium azide, a nitrogen compound. In an accident first a black powder charge is electrically ignited. The thus heated sodium azide decomposes into the elements sodium and nitrogen. The nitrogen gas that is formed blows up the airbag, while the sodium is held back by filter systems.


Already in 1951 Walter Linderer from Munich had the idea to protect car drivers with an air sack that would automatically inflate upon a collision. He envisioned a compressed air bottle whose valve would automatically open in accidents. Today explosive charges are used that ignite during hard impacts.


Saltpeter is not only used for explosives and weapons, but also for New Year’s rockets and firecrackers. In China, India and Southeast Asia this use of saltpeter was presumably known earlier than in Europe. Today in Thailand there are still firework rocket competitions, as for example the “Bun-Bong-Fei”, a festival in Thai villages that celebrates the end of the dry season. Huge homemade firework rockets are shot into the sky to beseech the rain gods for gentleness.


Ammonium nitrate is an important raw material of modern explosives. Like most explosives it contains a lot of nitrogen: 35 %. The substance is therefore sold in many countries as a fertilizer. In common commercial fertilizer the ammonium nitrate is prepared as not to explode offhandedly.