A Versatile Substance: The Varied Uses of Anhydrous Ammonia

Uses of Anhydrous Ammonia

Anhydrous ammonia is one of the most commonly produced industrial chemicals in our world today. Used in agriculture, manufacturing, and many other commercial industries, it serves a crucial role in our daily life whether we realize it or not.

Scientifically speaking, ammonia is an important part of many biological processes and exists naturally in our environment. It’s produced by bacteria found in the soil and it’s found in our atmosphere. But because of its low boiling point of -28° Fahrenheit, pure ammonia typically only exists in a gaseous state and must be under a great deal of pressure to remain a liquid.

While sometimes, headlines about anhydrous ammonia can give the product an undue bad reputation, it’s an important product that’s essential to the creation of many of the things we rely on every day. It’s also a safer alternative to more dangerous chemicals that can do greater damage.

How is ammonia used today? Here’s a look at what anhydrous ammonia does for us.

Anhydrous Ammonia as a Fertilizer

Nitrogen is one of the most common elements found in nature, and one of the most abundant gases in our atmosphere—it accounts for a total of about 80 percent of our atmosphere. It’s not found in solid mineral forms like phosphorus or potassium, but it’s still widely prevalent in many organic compounds and an important building block for both plants and animals. This is because many metabolic processes rely on nitrogen to successfully occur, including the growth of our crops across the globe. 

Nitrogen helps to form amino acids, which serve as the key components in proteins. It also plays a critical role in photosynthesis, which gives plants the power to transform sunlight into life-sustaining food. Typically, bacteria in the soil pulls nitrogen gas from the air to form ammonia. Other bacteria found in the soil then convert this ammonia into nitrate so that it can be used by plants.

However, soil-based nitrogen is difficult to manage. This makes nitrogen-based fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia an important supplier of nutrients that the crops we rely on need to sustain healthy plant growth. Anhydrous ammonia is often used as a fertilizer by injecting it directly into the ground. Anhydrous ammonia is injected 10 to 20 centimeters below the surface of the soil to prevent evaporation back into the atmosphere.

Why is this so important? Fertilizers are necessary for the way we grow crops. In fact, fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia account for 50 percent of global food production. Anhydrous ammonia is most commonly used as a fertilizer. In 2016, 175 million tons of anhydrous ammonia was produced, and more than 80 percent of it was used as a fertilizer because it is so high in nitrogen.

Anhydrous Ammonia as a Refrigerant

Another primary use of anhydrous ammonia is as a commercial refrigerant. It’s used in very large cooling systems like in food processing facilities, ice rinks, and more. 

What makes anhydrous ammonia such an ideal resource to use as a refrigerant?

  • It’s effective and efficient for large systems compared to other refrigerants
  • It quickly breaks down in event of a lean, which minimizes its potential impact on the environment
  • Any spill, leak, or accidental release is easily and quickly identifiable because it has a strong odor

The International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration states that ammonia is 3 to 10 percent more thermodynamically efficient than other competitive refrigerants, which means refrigeration systems can get the same cooling effect while using less power for lower, long-term operating costs. Also, unlike synthetic refrigerants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), it won’t damage the ozone layer if it’s released into the air. 

Some refrigerants have no real smell, which means that small leaks can go unnoticed and potentially cause harm. This is not the case with ammonia, which is noticeable at only about 20 parts per million in the air. It’s detectable at such a low concentration that it’s easily detected before it does any real damage.

Because of its powerful refrigeration and safety properties, anhydrous ammonia is an ideal product for commercial cooling.

Anhydrous Ammonia for Water Treatment

The U.S. public water supply is treated with chemicals made with anhydrous ammonia to disinfect drinking water and make it safe and palatable for our consumption. While this process removes objectionable odors and tastes, it also significantly reduces the risk of water-borne illnesses like typhoid fever, dysentery, and cholera. Treating the water supply also inactivates undesirable materials like sulfides, sulfites, ferrous iron, and other organic matter.

To treat the water supply, anhydrous ammonia is combined with chlorine to form chloramine. The use of chloramine is preferable to simple chlorine for a few reasons:

  • Chloramine lasts longer than chlorine for more consistent control of bacteria
  • Chloramines improve the efficacy of chlorine, which means less chemical use to treat water
  • Chloramines do not form carcinogens
  • Chloramines improve the taste and smell of drinking water

Especially in large open reservoirs of water, it can be challenging to maintain the right levels of pure chlorine in the water because of its tendency to combine with organic matter and dissipate in the sunlight. But when combined with anhydrous ammonia, chlorine forms chloramine, which lasts longer and proves to be much more effective than chlorine used on its own.

Other Uses for Anhydrous Ammonia

Anhydrous ammonia isn’t just used for fertilizers, refrigerants, or in the treatment of our water supply. It’s a multi-purpose workhorse which is a powerful agent that’s used in many industries. How else is anhydrous ammonia used?

Airgas Specialty Products is dedicated to providing exceptional service. Whether that’s through the reliable supply of anhydrous ammonia any time you need it, or the careful development of anhydrous ammonia storage solutions, we’re here for all of your anhydrous ammonia needs. We pride ourselves on our commitment to safety in the distribution and storage of your anhydrous ammonia. Can we help you? Contact us today to learn more about what we can do for you.