What is “ Ammonia ” Anyway?

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“What is “Ammonia” Anyway?”  This is a good question!  “Ammonia” is a very common chemical, familiar to householders who commonly see bottles labelled as “Ammonia” in the cleaning aisle of grocery stores, comfortingly scented with lemon or pine fragrances, although some is left unscented as well.  It is also a common component of some “multi-purpose” cleaners as well as being the primary ingredient in specialty cleaning products such as floor wax remover, jewelry cleaner, and most especially, glass cleaner.  “Ammonia” is commonly used to clean glass because it doesn’t leave streaks after wiping and drying, an important characteristic for a cleaner used on shiny or transparent surfaces.

So, it must be safe to say in answer to the above question, what is “Ammonia,” that it is a detergent or other type of cleaner.  But that wouldn’t be quite true and is the reason we were careful to always place the word “ammonia” in quotation marks!

Chemically Speaking

Ammonia, ( technically anhydrous ammonia) is in fact, one of the simplest of all chemical compounds.  It is composed on only four atoms total, three of them hydrogen surrounding a lone nitrogen atom.  That’s it, that’s all there is to it.  At average room temperature, ammonia is a clear and colorless gas which has a familiar pungent and irritating odor.  It should be clear that this isn’t exactly the same thing you buy in the grocery store!  What you buy in the bottles at the market is a watery solution of the gas dissolved into water, which contains usually no more than 15-20% of actual ammonia gas by weight.  It is important to note at this point that Mold Stat doesn’t contain ANY ammonia in either form.

Where do we find ammonia?

Ammonia gas does occur in nature on Earth in small amounts due to the decay of animal and plant matter that contains nitrogen, meaning most all such materials.  It is very common, however, in the solar system, especially on the outer gas giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) where it may occur as either liquid in large lakes and seas, and/or it may fall as precipitation in the form of rain or even snow.  This is only possible because of the extremely cold temperatures of these worlds!

Ammonia occurs in the human body as a result of the digestion of food stuffs.  It is normally filtered out or converted by the liver.  When ammonia levels in the body are high, liver damage or failure is usually indicated.

These small sources of ammonia on Earth would never meet our enormous need for the gas.  It is one of the most commonly produced industrial gases in the world.  In fact, in 2012, some 198 MILLION tons of the gas were produced worldwide, mostly in China (28%) with other nations producing much smaller amounts.  The United States produced only about 8% of the total, but that still comes out to about 15 million tons.  One has to wonder what we are doing with all that ammonia!

Perhaps surprisingly for a chemical which is known to be toxic to animals, especially to fish and amphibians, and which is intensely irritating but not usually fatal (except in highly concentrated industrial situations) to humans, ammonia is essential to food production!  In fact, over 80% of all that ammonia, some 162 million tons of it, are used as fertilizer either by injecting the gas directly into the ground or through the use of chemicals that contain ammonia that are solid in form.  Ammonia is a ready source of essential nitrogen that makes plants green and strong.  Without it, worldwide starvation would be likely.  You shouldn’t use the “ammonia” you buy in the grocery store as a fertilizer for your plants at home however.  While it has ammonia as the active ingredient it will almost always contains other ingredients such as dyes, perfumes and detergents that could harm plants.

Non-cleaning uses

Ammonia has other uses as well, the most familiar of which is as a component of cleaning solutions (but again, not in MoldStat Plus!).  Other uses include but may not be strictly limited to:

  • Laboratory and industrial processes
  • Fermentation of alcohol
  • Antimicrobial agent in food preparation (most infamously in the preparation of “pink slime” meat products).
  • Refrigeration
  • Fuel
  • Illegal methamphetamine manufacturing (sadly)
  • Cotton textile production
  • Gas for weather balloons and related items
  • Woodworking

Chemical Interaction Dangers

While it is widely used, ammonia has to be used carefully to ensure that no harm comes to users or to the environment.  Exposure is usually obvious because of the odor, but it is possible for a person to be overcome with the fumes and suffer a fatality if the ammonia is highly concentrated such as in an industrial situation.  Householders using ammonia containing cleaners must be careful to avoid contact with the eyes, nose, mouth, as well as the rest of the respiratory and digestive tracts as ammonia is an intense irritant to these areas of the body.  It can also irritate the skin so appropriate precautions should be taken as with any household chemical.  And one has to be especially careful to NEVER mix anything containing ammonia with anything containing BLEACH (sodium hypochlorite) as a dangerous reaction can occur that would release dangerous gases!

Ammonia in summary

To sum it all up, ammonia is a colorless but highly odiferous gas, composed of nitrogen and hydrogen.  It is common in the Solar System but has to be manufactured on Earth.  It is widely used as a fertilizer worldwide and is essential to food production along with many other potential minor uses.  It is safe if used properly with appropriate precautions.

Additional articles in the series about ammonia will address topics such as:

  • Ammonium and its compounds
  • What are quaternary, or “quat” ammonias
  • Specifics about certain quaternary chemicals found in Mold Stat.

Stay tuned for those interesting items and more.

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