Ammonia is about as simple as molecules get. Ammonia, like methane, water and carbon dioxide, consists of only 2 different elements. Yet, this otherwise unassuming molecule helped give rise to life on Earth and has many important industrial uses. For a brief overview, read more below.
Ammonia-the “Primordial Soup”
Life on Earth is believed to have arisen in a “primordial soup”, a mixture of methane , ammonia and water. Methane and ammonia together have three of the essential elements of organic matter, carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. It is thought that when these reacted with oxygen using lightning as the energy source, the building blocks of life, amino acids and nucleic acids were formed. (1)
Ammonia in Common Uses
Nearly 200 million tons of ammonia are produced industrially around the world every year. It finds its way into an extraordinary list of products. It is a precursor for nitrogen based fertilizers and explosives. It can be used in household cleaners, particularly for glass. It is also an effective refrigerant used in industrial freezing and hockey rinks. It even has notable advantages over compressed hydrogen as an automotive fuel. (2)
Ammonia as a Leak Indicator
Detecting leaks can be a challenge for many industrial applications, especially if the hole is practically invisible. Where phenolphthalein is useful for identifying gross leaks due to faulty or rusting connections between pipes, it can’t pinpoint the location of a leak in the areas between the joints.
Ammonia offers a key advantage. It is a very small molecule and can pass through very small holes. It also has the ability to cause color changes in chemical indicators more sensitive than phenolphthalein.
Reaction vessels used in industrial applications are tested for leaks by filling them with ammonia under pressure. Cloth that has been infused with the special indicator can be wrapped around these containers and if there are any leaks, however tiny, they will produce a small local color change. Even very slow leaks will show up and the offending holes can be identified with a 10-30X magnifier.
Of course, not everything about ammonia is a benefit. The infographic below lists some of the potential hazards caused by a variety of chemical reactions ammonia is involved in.
Ammonia produces a great many other chemicals important in day to day applications. Many thanks for Andy Brunning of compoundchem.com for the use of this image.
Ammonia The Molecule
Last but not least, here is a picture of ammonia. The central blue atom is nitrogen and the 3 white atoms are hydrogen. Uses our 3D molecular model builder to build your own model of ammonia (or almost any other compound) for display or teaching.