The name of the compound NH3 is ammonia. This chemical usually takes the form of an invisible yet strong-smelling gas and is composed of nitrogen and hydrogen. Because ammonia is the simplest stable combination of those elements, it has many commercial uses, including cleaning supplies, agriculture, and even food.
Ammonia has a boiling point of -33.35 degrees Celsius or -28.03 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why it is usually found on Earth as a gas. Pure ammonia in liquid form is stored under extreme pressure to keep it from evaporating. The ammonia found in household products is often combined with water, which keeps it in liquid form without such pressure. This is called aqua ammonia or ammonium hydroxide.
The most common source of ammonia is the Haber-Bosch process. This reaction combines pure nitrogen and hydrogen under high pressure and temperature with a catalyst, such as iron, to create ammonia.m
Ammonia as Fertilizer
Around 90 percent of manufactured ammonia is used as fertilizer to help crops grow. Farmers apply liquid ammonia through large tanks to the soil in their fields. To keep the ammonia from evaporating, machinery is used to bury the liquid beneath four to eight inches of soil. This keeps the ammonia from evaporating into the air and creates ammonium, which in turn acts as a source of nitrogen for plants. By combining it with other chemicals, ammonia can also be turned into fertilizer as a salt or as aqua ammonia.
Ammonia as Cleaning Agent
Because ammonia is good at breaking down grime, it is often combined with other chemicals for use in cleaning supplies. Its ability to evaporate quickly even helps to avoid streaks caused by window cleaners. Here are just some of the ways ammonia can be used around the house:
- To clean electric ovens and metal racks
- Grease and soap scum removal
- As a glass cleaner
- Moth repellent
- Floor wax removal
- Carpet and upholstery cleaning
- Paint odor removal
- To clean brass objects and jewelry
- Shoe and clothing stain removal
- Animal repellent for trash cans
Ammonia in Food
Ammonia occurs naturally in foods people eat every day, including milk, meat, fruit, and vegetables. Ammonia compounds are used to help baked goods rise in the oven and to control the acidity of cheese and chocolate. Ammonium chloride, a salt made with ammonia, can be found in everything from bread and canned ravioli to soft drinks.
Additionally, ammonium hydroxide is used to clean meat and kill harmful parasites and bacteria.
Ammonia is harmless in many forms, but it can still be dangerous. Ammonia can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs, making it important to follow all instructions on cleaning supplies that include ammonia. Ammonia mixed with bleach creates toxic gases called chloramines that can cause chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, and even pneumonia. While the ammonia in everyday food is safe to eat, consuming cleaning supplies that contain ammonia can cause internal burning and stomach pains and should be avoided. If an unsafe ammonia product is consumed, contact the National Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222.
Although ammonia is not usually flammable, it can burn in high concentrations, and the presence of oil or other easily burned substances can make that more likely. Ammonia can corrode zinc, copper, and many other alloys. Because of this, ammonia needs to be stored in special containers made out of steel, iron, or certain kinds of plastic or rubber. Finally, ammonia can combine with mercury to create a dangerous and explosive compound.