Nitrogen Trihydride [Formula, Properties, Uses]

Nitrogen trihydride may sound like a new chemical to you; however, it is not. Ancient Egyptians use the substance to worship Amon, an ancient Egyptian god. But what is nitrogen trihydride?

Nitrogen trihydride, commonly known as ammonia, exists after a covalent bond between two non-metals. The nitrogen trihydride formula is NH3, having one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. It is also called volatile alkali or alkaline air. 

Read on to learn more about nitrogen trihydride, including its formula, properties, history, uses, and how it is made.

What Is Nitrogen Trihydride? 

nitrogen trihydride

Ammonia, or nitrogen trihydride (NH3), comprises one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. It is also called volatile alkali or alkaline air because it exists as a covalent bond between two non-metals.

Nitrogen Trihydride Formula

What is the formula for nitrogen trihydride? The nitrogen trihydride formula is NH3. Note that the word ‘tri’ indicates three, meaning three hydrogen atoms and one nitrogen atom.

The nitrogen trihydride formula is simple, and it would come easily from other compounds when combined with either a base or an acid with the replacement of the hydrogen atoms.

Properties of Nitrogen Trihydride (Ammonia)

The properties of nitrogen trihydride or ammonia are as follows:

  1. Colorless Gas
  2. Easily liquifies 
  3. Lighter than air
  4. It emits a pungent smell.
  5. Considered a weak base
  6. Readily dissolves in water. 
  7. Boiling can expel it into the air.
  8. The liquid form is alkaline with water. 
  9. The liquid boils at -27.94°F or -33.3°C
  10. It has a density of 0.589, lighter than air.
  11. Freezes to white crystals at -107.86°F or -77.7°C 
  12. Amphoteric and could react to both positive and negative ions.
  13. It can be deodorized by combining it with acetic acid or sodium bicarbonate.

Sources of Nitrogen Trihydride (Ammonia)

Nitrogen trihydride (ammonia) is a chemical produced from nitrogenous plants and animal matter. You could also find ammonium salts and ammonia in rainwater and ammonium sulfate and ammonium chloride in volcanic areas.

Seawater and fertile soil also contain ammonium salts. In the body, the kidneys secrete ammonia to help neutralize the body’s acidity.

You can find nitrogen trihydride in the solar system as well, such as in the planets. (Pluto, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Neptune, and Uranus.) 

History of Nitrogen Hydride (Ammonia)

Ancient Egyptians first discovered ammonia near volcano cracks, and they observed that the substance decomposes to pungent ammonia in warm temperatures. Moreover, they use this substance to worship the Egyptian God, Amun. Thus, they named the substance ammonia.

Joseph Black first isolated gaseous ammonia in 1756 through the ammonium chloride and magnesium oxide reaction in modern times. 

On the other hand, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a process to produce ammonia from nitrogen in 1909 and called it the Haber-Bosch process.

This process converts nitrogen gas in the air into ammonia. Eventually, Germany was able to find this nitrate source to build explosives in WW1. The process took place at about 200 atmospheric pressure (atm) and 400 to 500°C in the presence of an iron (Fe) catalyst. 

Later on, Fritz Haber filed a patent for ammonia’s synthesis and won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. He also discovered the nitrogen trihydride formula or ammonia formula (NH3). The combination of 3 atoms of hydrogen and one atom of nitrogen produces ammonia.

Other Properties of Nitrogen Trihydride’s in Different Forms

Liquid State

1. Solvent with Strong Ionizing Powers

Liquid nitrogen trihydride could act as a solvent with its strong ionizing powers. This occurrence is possible due to its too high-standard enthalpy vaporization change. [1]

Water is the universal solvent because it could dissolve the majority of substances.

The table below is a comparison of water, ethanol, and ammonia’s solvent properties:

SolventIonic & Polar CompoundsNon-Polar Covalent CompoundsAlkali Metals
Ammonia (Hydrogen trihydride)Better solvent than ethanolMost effective solventDissolves many alkalis to produce strong basic solutions
WaterBest solventLeast effectiveMore likely to produce more hydrogen ions in combination with alkalis
EthanolLeast effectiveBetter solvent than waterMay or may not dissolve specific alkalis

2. Alkaline

This property allows laboratories to use ammonia uninsulated even without refrigerating. Liquid ammonia is also alkaline because dissolved ammonia reacts readily with water producing ammonium hydroxide. 

3. Vapor Pressure

Liquid ammonia could exert a vapor pressure of about 120 pounds per square inch at 20°C. Experts call a saturated solution of ammonia in water with a maximum concentration as ‘.880 ammonia’ because of its 0.880 g/cm3 density.

Gaseous Form

1. Does Not Burn Easily

nitrogen trihydride formula

Nitrogen trihydride does not burn easily. However, when combined with oxygen, it gives off a yellowish-green flame. Chlorine, when combined with ammonia, can combust, forming hydrogen chloride and nitrogen.

2. Can Produce Extremely Explosive Substance (NCl3)

Consider that high chlorine concentrations can produce an extremely explosive substance – nitrogen trichloride (NCl3). Thus, proceed cautiously with this process.

3. Detect Leaks Using Quicklime

You can detect leaks in industrial ammonia refrigeration systems using quicklime, sulfur sticks, or caustic alkali. Thus, you could smell the chemical’s characteristic pungent smell if there’s a leak of gaseous ammonia.

Solid Form

1. Cubic Symmetrical Crystal

Ammonia in its solid form appears as cubic symmetrical crystals that may occur in a lattice form.

2. Soluble in Water

Water quickly dissolves ammonia. Nitrogen trihydride can also react with many chemicals to form various compounds.

3. Combine with Acidic Substances

Different chemicals can replace ammonia’s hydrogen ion to produce ammonium salts when combined with acidic substances. 

Examples of these are ammonium chloride with hydrogen chloride, ammonium nitrate with nitric acid, and ammonium sulfate with sulfuric acid.

4. Ammonium Salts of Weak Acids Can Decompose into Ammonia and Acid

Nitrogen trihydride’s ammonium salts of weak acids could quickly decompose into ammonia and acid.

5. Ammonia Can Be Converted to Ammonium Carbonate

Ammonia could also be converted to ammonium carbonate ((NH3)2CO3H2O), commonly called smelling salts or ammonium salts. Furthermore, these aromatic spirits of ammonia are white crystalline in nature.

6. Can Produce Amides, Imines, Nitrides, etc.

Radicals or other atoms or metal ions could also replace ammonia’s hydrogen atoms to form amides, imines, nitrides, and other products.

What is nitrogen trihydride? Nitrogen trihydride or ammonia has one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms.

Thus, its chemical formula is NH3. Moreover, nitrogen trihydride is also called volatile alkali or alkaline air because it is considered alkali in nature. Also, it exists after a covalent bond between two non-metals (Nitrogen and Hydrogen).

Uses of Ammonia

Ammonia has various uses in the laboratory, in agriculture, and many industries.

Suffice to say that many products would not exist without nitrogen trihydride:

1. Excellent Refrigerant

When ammonia evaporates, it absorbs all the heat around it. Therefore, it is an ideal refrigerant. You do not need to refrigerate items as long as the container has ammonia and is insulated. Nonetheless, this type of home refrigerant is uncommon. 

2. Chemical Laboratory Solvent

Liquid nitrogen trihydride is second to water with regards to its ability to dissolve substances. It can dissolve ionic and polar compounds better than ethanol, but ethanol is better in dissolving non-polar compounds. Refer to the table below for the summary of ammonia’s dissolving properties

3. Cleaning Solution

You can use ammonia as :

  • Cleaning solution,
  • Deodorizer, and
  • Bleach.

Manufacturers dilute ammonia with water and sell it as a household cleaning solution with ammonium hydroxide as the active cleansing agent.

Wear appropriate protective gear when using the cleaning solution as it is corrosive and the vapor is irritating to the eyes and skin. Avoid prolonged inhalation and exposure as the solution could cause serious ill health effects that could be fatal.

Some manufacturers have come up with a weaker solution, the ammonium hydrate or ammonia water, which contains about 30% ammonium hydroxide (weight/volume) at room temperature and standard pressure. Therefore, for your safety, you may want to choose this safer product.

4. Fertilizers

Nitrogen trihydride’s primary use is as a fertilizer. As a fertilizer, you can easily transport and store ammonia. Ammonia is also the most significant component of potassium nitrate fertilizers.

Nitrogen is responsible for 80% of a plant’s growth; however, it is not readily available for plants as it exists in the atmosphere in gaseous form. 

This fact is the reason why factories produce chemical nitrogen fertilizers from ammonia. Therefore, without ammonia, farmers will not be able to grow their plants robustly. Ammonia’s production comes from the reaction of nitrogen and hydrogen with the help of a catalyst. [2]

5. Synthesis of Nitric Acid

what is the formula for nitrogen trihydride

The Solvay Process of synthesizing nitric acid uses large amounts of ammonia or nitrogen trihydride. Subsequently, nitric acid is a primary mineral fertilizer component and is an essential chemical in the laboratory. Entrepreneurs also use nitric acid to produce explosives.

6. Vital in Some Oxidation-Reduction Reactions

Ammonia acts as a reducing agent. Ammonia could reduce cupric oxide to copper and is oxidized in the atmosphere to form nitric oxide and water with a catalyst, such as platinum. Nitrogen trihydride also burns oxygen to form gaseous nitrogen (N2) and water (H2O.)

7. Synthesis of Organic Compounds

Scientists use nitrogen trihydride in synthesizing organic compounds, such as plastics, drugs, and dyes. This crucial utilization is possible because of ammonia’s amphoteric properties. This property also enables reactions to take place to allow the production of new products. 

8. Source of Hydrogen for Acid Fuel Cells

Ammonia serves as a source of hydrogen for acid fuel cells. When ammonia decomposes in the presence of a catalyst, it produces hydrogen and nitrogen that these cells can use. However, this decomposition only happens at high temperatures.

9. Fermentation Process

Ammonia solutions from 16% to 25% are utilized to adjust the pH during the fermentation process. The nitrogen trihydride will provide nitrogen to microorganisms. This reaction will then help maintain the acidic pH.

10. Antimicrobial Agent or Antiseptic

Studies showed that ammonia could destroy zoonotic bacteria; thus, it is useful in eliminating and reducing beef products’ microbial contamination. Thus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared the process safe and effective in treating beef products.

Lastly, many manufacturers continue to use anhydrous ammonia to eliminate or reduce microbial contamination (Escherichia coli) in beef products.

Nitrogen Trihydride’s Synthetic Production

You can produce nitrogen trihydride or ammonia using the following processes. Factories usually mass produce ammonia synthetically under controlled conditions: 

1. Haber Process

Generally, ammonia’s production uses the Haber process. In this process, hydrogen directly combines with nitrogen in the presence of a catalyst at high temperatures and pressures.

In particular, experts maintain a controlled environment to produce nitrogen trihydride successfully. Moreover, this process is the method that most experts prefer as the step is simple and convenient.

2. Combination of Ammonium Salt and a Strong Base

You could obtain ammonia or nitrogen trihydride when you heat an ammonium salt with a strong base. This reaction will initiate a chemical reaction with ammonia as one of the byproducts.

Thus, if you need just a small amount of ammonia, you could perform this production in a simple chemical laboratory. But we don’t recommend it due to safety issues.

3. Combination of Nitrogen Gas and Calcium Carbide 

Scientists could prepare nitrogen trihydride synthetically by combining nitrogen gas and calcium carbide. They must perform this process at high temperatures to form calcium cyanamide and carbon.

The calcium cyanamide then combines with steam to produce calcium carbonate and ammonia. This procedure is best in mass production as there is dedicated equipment to perform the steps.

4. Destructive Distillation of Coal

You can obtain ammonia from coal’s destructive distillation byproduct. However, this process must be conducted safely – just like the other procedures – as mishaps, or untoward results may happen. 

5. Combine Metal Nitride with Water

You can allow a metal nitride to react with water to obtain nitrogen trihydride. It could be a simple procedure as nitride dissolves in water. You can then collect the ammonia for appropriate utilization.

Conclusion – Nitrogen Trihydride

Nitrogen trihydride, commonly known as ammonia (NH3), is formed by combining nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms. It exists as a covalent bond between two non-metals.

Ammonia is also called alkaline air or volatile alkali because it could readily combust in the presence of a catalyst.

Nitrogen trihydride is also essential in various industries, especially agriculture, where factories make it into fertilizers. Aside from this primary use, ammonia could dissociate in water, producing hydrogen and nitrogen, or could form back into ammonia as the need arises. 

Be familiar with the uses of ammonia or nitrogen trihydride so you can maximize its usefulness in your daily life.