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Company Creates Hard-to-Ignite Fertilizer to Foil Bomb-Makers

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April 19, 1995: The Alfred Murrah Federal Building after a truck bomb made with fertilizer exploded in Oklahoma City.AP

Industrial manufacturer Honeywell said Tuesday it has developed a new nitrogen-based fertilizer that is difficult to ignite — a discovery that could reduce criminals' ability to make explosives used in major terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing.

Honeywell International Inc. said its patented fertilizer combines ammonium sulfate with ammonium nitrate, providing the nitrogen and sulfur needed for plant nutrition but making it largely useless as a fuel for explosives.

The company said that when mixed with substances such as fuel oil — a volatile combination often used to make bombs — the new fertilizer did not detonate.

"The unique composition of this new fertilizer makes it extremely difficult to turn it into a weapon," said Qamar Bhatia, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Resins & Chemicals, in a statement. "Ammonium nitrate has long been an excellent fertilizer, but this technology makes it safer."

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Fertilizer explosives were suspected in attacks that include the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people, and the 1995 attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City with a two-ton bomb that killed 168.

Five men linked to Al Qaeda were sentenced in Britain to life in prison last year for stockpiling a half-ton of fertilizer for planned attacks on targets in London.

Many countries now closely regulate the sale of fertilizer, and some U.S. states have instituted measures to track sales. Last year, Congress required both purchasers and sellers of ammonium nitrate to register and keep track of sales.

While the Department of Homeland Security has not yet issued its regulations for putting the new policy in place, the requirements are meant to keep people from stockpiling, explained Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs for industry group The Fertilizer Institute.

Fertilizers commonly have high levels of ammonium nitrate, which provides the nitrogen that plants need for growth. But the substance is also an oxidizing agent that can be combined with fuel to create an explosion.

Honeywell said its new fertilizer fuses ammonium nitrate with the non-explosive ammonium sulfate — neutralizing the compound's potential for danger.

Morris Township, N.J.-based Honeywell, a conglomerate that makes products ranging from aerospace equipment to chemicals to spark plugs, already produces around 1.6 million tons of ammonium sulfate annually for fertilizer.

It said tests of the new combined fertilizer found that it was at least as effective as other fertilizers on crops including cabbage, tomatoes and oranges.

The fertilizer's volatility was positively evaluated in independent tests using federal guidelines, Honeywell said.

The technology has been given a Department of Homeland Security designation that gives it liability protection, under legislation established to provide incentives for developing anti-terrorism technologies to reduce security threats.

Honeywell is conducting pilot plant test production to finalize scale-up and engineering plans for manufacturing. It also is in talks with potential manufacturing partners. The company hopes to have limited quantities for sale in some regions next year and plans to market the material as Sulf-N 26 fertilizer.

In afternoon trading, shares of Honeywell fell 70 cents to $42.90 amid a decline in the broader market.