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What is ammonia?

Ammonia is a compound containing nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3. It is a colourless gas with a characteristically pungent odour. Ammonia found in the atmosphere is a by-product of the breakdown of animal and vegetable matter. Traditionally, synthetic ammonia production through dry-distillation emulated this process. Today most ammonia is produced through the Haber-Bosch process, using hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons.

The most common forms of ammonia are salts and solutions used in fertilizers.

How is ammonia used?

Of all ammonia produced, 83% is used directly to produce fertilizers for the agriculture industry. The most common of these are ammonium nitrate and urea.

Ammonia solutions of strengths between 16-25% are used in the fermentation industry as a source of nitrogen for microorganisms. Weaker solutions of ammonia, between 5-15% are commonly used in domestic and industrial cleaning applications.

Pure ammonia is used in the chemical production of virtually all synthetic nitrogen compounds. The most significant of these is nitric acid, produced by oxidizing ammonia with air over a platinum catalyst. In World War II pure ammonia was used to power buses in Belgium, leading some to suggest it could be used as an alternative to traditional gasoline and other crude oil based fuels.

Due to its’ vaporization properties, ammonia is also commonly used as a refrigerant in large-scale industrial cooling systems. Other uses of ammonia include treating textiles, pre-washing wool, fuelling weather balloons and as an antimicrobial agent for food products.

Who uses ammonia?

Ammonia is heavily used across the globe, especially in countries with a significant agriculture industry. In 2009 the global consumption by region was as follows:
  •  
  • East Asia 39.8% (49.9 million tonnes)
  • South Asia 12.3% (15.3 million tonnes)
  • North America 12.2% (15.2 million tonnes)
  • East Europe & Central Asia 10.6% (13.3 million tonnes)
  • West Europe 7.9% (9.9 million tonnes)
  • West Asia 6.1% (7.7 million tonnes)
  • Africa 3.5% (4.3 million tonnes)
  • Latin America 3.5% (4.3 million tonnes)
  • Central Europe 3.2% (4.0 million tonnes)
  • Oceania & Other 0.9% (1.1 million tonnes)

Where does ammonia come from?

Ammonia is produced in a wide variety of countries across the globe. According to the United States Geological Survey, the total global production of ammonia in 2009 was 130 million tonnes. The largest producer is China, who produced 42 million tonnes of ammonia in 2009. This is roughly 32.5% of the global total.

The next biggest producer in 2009 was India. India produced 11.2 million tonnes or roughly 8.6% of the global total. Russia is close behind, producing roughly 8.0 % of the global total or 10.4 million tonnes. The USA was the fourth biggest producer, with 7.7 million tonnes or 5.9% of total production.

The world’s biggest exporter of Ammonia is Trinidad and Tobago, also the fifth biggest producer. In 2009, Trinidad and Tobago produced 5.1 million tonnes, 3.9% of the global total.

Interesting facts ammonia about :

  • NASA’s x-15 rocket plane was fuelled by ammonia.
  • The pungent odour associated with ammonia is actually a chemical burn, not a smell.
  • More than 1% of total global energy demand is used in the production of ammonia.

Extra References:


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