Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3. A stable binary hydride, and the simplest pnictogen hydride, ammonia is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent smell. It is a common nitrogenous waste, particularly among aquatic organisms, and it contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to food and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or indirectly, is also a building block for the synthesis of many pharmaceutical products and is used in many commercial cleaning products. It is mainly collected by downward displacement of both air and water.
Ammonia is a chemical found in trace quantities in nature, being produced from nitrogenous animal and vegetable matter. Ammonia and ammonium salts are also found in small quantities in rainwater, whereas ammonium chloride (sal ammoniac), and ammonium sulfate are found in volcanic districts; crystals of ammonium bicarbonate have been found in Patagonia guano. The kidneys secrete ammonia to neutralize excess acid. Ammonium salts are found distributed through fertile soil and in seawater.
The ammonia molecule readily undergoes nitrogen inversion at room temperature; a useful analogy is an umbrella turning itself inside out in a strong wind. The energy barrier to this inversion is 24.7 kJ/mol, and the resonance frequency is 23.79 GHz, corresponding to microwave radiation of a wavelength of 1.260 cm. The absorption at this frequency was the first microwave spectrum to be observed.
Amides can be prepared by the reaction of ammonia with carboxylic acid derivatives. Acyl chlorides are the most reactive, but the ammonia must be present in at least a twofold excess to neutralise the hydrogen chloride formed. Esters and anhydrides also react with ammonia to form amides. Ammonium salts of carboxylic acids can be dehydrated to amides so long as there are no thermally sensitive groups present: temperatures of 150¥200 ÀC are required.
Sulfur sticks are burnt to detect small leaks in industrial ammonia refrigeration systems. Larger quantities can be detected by warming the salts with a caustic alkali or with quicklime, when the characteristic smell of ammonia will be at once apparent. Ammonia is an irritant and irritation increases with concentration; the permissible exposure limit is 25 ppm, and lethal above 500 ppm. Higher concentrations are hardly detected by conventional detectors, the type of detector is chosen according to the sensitivity required (e.g. semiconductor, catalytic, electrochemical). Holographic sensors have been proposed for detecting concentrations up to 12.5% in volume.
In the US as of 2019, approximately 88% of ammonia was used as fertilizers either as its salts, solutions or anhydrously. When applied to soil, it helps provide increased yields of crops such as maize and wheat. 30% of agricultural nitrogen applied in the US is in the form of anhydrous ammonia and worldwide 110 million tonnes are applied each year.
Ammonia engines or ammonia motors, using ammonia as a working fluid, have been proposed and occasionally used. The principle is similar to that used in a fireless locomotive, but with ammonia as the working fluid, instead of steam or compressed air. Ammonia engines were used experimentally in the 19th century by Goldsworthy Gurney in the UK and the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line in New Orleans in the 1870s and 1880s, and during World War II ammonia was used to power buses in Belgium.
During winter, when reduced feeds are administered to aquaculture stock, ammonia levels can be higher. Lower ambient temperatures reduce the rate of algal photosynthesis so less ammonia is removed by any algae present. Within an aquaculture environment, especially at large scale, there is no fast-acting remedy to elevated ammonia levels. Prevention rather than correction is recommended to reduce harm to farmed fish and in open water systems, the surrounding environment.
Ammonia reacts violently with the halogens. Nitrogen triiodide, a primary high explosive, is formed when ammonia comes in contact with iodine. Ammonia causes the explosive polymerisation of ethylene oxide. It also forms explosive fulminating compounds with compounds of gold, silver, mercury, germanium or tellurium, and with stibine. Violent reactions have also been reported with acetaldehyde, hypochlorite solutions, potassium ferricyanide and peroxides.