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Unstable Compound Identified in Takata Air Bags

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 2014   

Experts suspect ammonium nitrate is the likely cause for Takata’s massive air bag failures, resulting in at least five deaths and over one hundred injuries, The New York Times reported on November 19.

Reports of air bags exploding on impact, spraying shrapnel throughout the cabin, began pouring in from across the nation, especially in high humidity areas. Takata and safety officials have not been able to definitively identify the cause of the problem. However, some are now pointing to the ammonium nitrate included in its inflators as the source of the malfunction. Takata switched the chemical compound used in its inflators from the stable, but expensive, tetrazole to ammonium nitrate in the mid-1990s. Experts in explosives engineering explain that ammonium nitrate can become unstable in fluctuating temperature conditions; the cycling temperature changes from day to night over time can be enough to trigger this effect in some areas of the nation.

Though critics note that ammonium nitrate is significantly less expensive than tetrazole, Takata maintains that the switch occurred because the compound “produced gas more efficiently with fewer emissions.”

Currently, Takata refutes the link between ammonium nitrate and the air bag defects; they have developed a “newly updated propellant” they are using in replacement air bags for the 14 million vehicles named in their recall, according to Reuters, but ammonium nitrate is still included in the updated formula, The New York Times claims.

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