What Is Ammonia? | Definition and Uses

  • Ammonia is a colorless gas that is produced from natural sources as well as industrial synthesis.
  • About 175 million tons of ammonia is produced synthetically every year.
  • More than 85% of produced ammonia is used as fertilizers and in household cleaning products.

Ammonia (also known as azane) is a compound of Hydrogen and Nitrogen with a molecular formula NH3. It is produced from nitrogenous animal and vegetable matter and is found in trace quantities in nature.

In the United States, ammonia is classified as a highly hazardous compound. Facilities that create, store, or use it in substantial are required to report to the government.

What is Ammonia? Simplified

Ammonia is a colorless gas with a strong, pungent odor. It occurs naturally throughout the environment in the water, soil, and air, as well as in animals and plants. The human body also produces ammonia by breaking down protein (obtained from food) into ammonia and amino acids.

Definition: Ammonia is a colorless gaseous alkaline compound made of nitrogen and hydrogen. It is very soluble in water and can easily be condensed to a liquid by pressure and cold.

The stereo structural ammonia molecule

Its chemical formula is NHin the unionized form and NH4+ in the ionized state. The total ammonia (sum of both ionized and unionized form) is measured analytically in water.

Some Interesting properties of ammonia 

  • The ionized ammonia is less toxic than its unionized form.
  • At room temperature, it is a colorless gas with a suffocating odor.
  • Anhydrous ammonia gas (that contains no water) is lighter than air.
  • It is corrosive and has alkaline properties.
  • It is usually transported as a compressed liquid in steel containers.
  • Although it isn’t highly flammable, vessels containing ammonia may explode when exposed to high temperatures.

How Is It Produced?

An English physical scientist Joseph Priestley prepared pure ammonia for the first time in 1774. Nearly a decade later, a French chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet determined its exact composition.

Up till the early 20th century, the dry distillation (of animal waste products along with nitrogen-rich vegetable waste) was the primary technique of producing ammonia.

Today, it is produced industrially via a process called Haber-Bosch. It involves a gas phase reaction between nitrogen and hydrogen at high temperatures (over 450°C) and pressure (10,000 kilopascals) in the presence of a catalyst.

ammonia production

It’s an exothermic reaction that causes a decrease in entropy. Considering the amount of energy required to produce purified atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, the production of ammonia is an extremely energy-intensive process.

Ammonia production consumes up to 5% of natural gas, about 2% of global energy, and is responsible for 3% of global carbon emission.

Industrial ammonia is sold either as refrigerated or pressurized anhydrous liquid ammonia in cylinders or ammonia liquor (which is 28% ammonia dissolved in water) in cans. In 2018, the worldwide industrial production of ammonia was 175 million tons.

What Are The Uses Of Ammonia?

It can be used in many different ways. Below, we have mentioned some of the most important applications of ammonia and its benefits.

1. Fertilizers

It is widely used as a soil fertilizer.

More than 85% of ammonia is used as fertilizers either as its solutions, salts, or in its anhydrous form. It helps farmers keep their soil productive and increase the yields of crops, such as wheat and maize. Fertilizers are also used to increase levels of important nutrients like selenium, boron, and zinc in food crops.

Furthermore, it is often used as preservatives and antifungal agents on certain fruits.

2. Household Cleaning Products

A solution of ammonia can be used to clean many household surfaces, including sinks, tubs, toilets, kitchen countertops, and tiles. Since it evaporates quickly, it is frequently used in glass cleaning solutions to avoid streaking. It has also proven effective in breaking down household strains or grime from vegetable oils or animal fats.

The concentration of household ammonia ranges somewhere between 5 to 10%. This means more than 90% of the solution contains water. In the US, it is necessary for companies to provide cleaning products’ safety data sheet that lists the concentration used and information relating to occupational safety and health.

3. Industrial Fermentation

Fermentation is a metabolic process in which organic substrates undergo a chemical change due to the action of enzymes. For example, bacteria perform fermentation to obtain energy by converting carbohydrates into lactic acid.

Industrial fermentation refers to the intentional use of fermentation by microorganisms to make products useful to humans. The process is used to make many useful commodity chemicals, such as ethanol, citric acid, and acetic acid.

Fixed nitrogen sources are necessary for most organisms to synthesize cellular components, such as nucleic acids and proteins. Ammonia solutions (with concentrations ranging between 16 and 25%) act as the sources of nitrogen for those microorganisms. These solutions are also used to adjust pH during the fermentation process.

4. Antimicrobial agent

Ammonia act as a strong antiseptic for various food products. Anhydrous ammonia, for example, can destroy 99.99% of zoonotic bacteria in 3 forms of animal feeds. It is most commonly used to eliminate or decrease microbial contamination of beef.

5. Refrigerant

Ammonia refrigeration system

Because of anhydrous ammonia’s low cost and high energy efficiency, it is broadly used in industrial refrigeration applications such as air-conditioning equipment. It is also used in a mixture along with water and hydrogen in absorption refrigerators as well as in the modern vapor compression refrigeration system.

The International Space Station in low Earth orbit also uses ammonia coolant to enable temperature-sensitive experiments and regulate the internal temperature.

6. Textiles

Liquid ammonia is treated with cotton fabric to improve its softness. This treatment changes the shape and the cross-section of fibers, increasing the lubrication between the fiber. It also provides dimensional stability and allows the fabric to hold its fresh look after many launderings.

7. Woodwork

Fumed oak choir stalls

Some wood finishing process utilizes ammonia fuming, which involves darkening woods and bringing out the grain pattern. This is done by exposing the wood to fumes from a strong ammonium hydroxide solution, which reacts with the tannins in the wood. It works best on white oak because this wood contains high tannin content.

Read: 8 Strongest Acids Ever Known To Us

Other Uses

  • Since ammonia is lighter than air, it can be used in weather balloons as a lifting gas.
  • Dissociated ammonia is used in operations like furnace brazing, nitriding, atomic hydrogen welding, and carbonitriding.
  • Some rocked engines, including Reaction Motors XLR99, have used liquid ammonia as a fuel.
Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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