Ammonia has such a distinct smell that we all know when we’re in its presence, even if we didn’t know that it was “ammonia”. It is completely colorless, so the scent is a handy way to tell that it’s in use nearby and it often is. In fact, ammonia is used on a large scale in many different industries and in household products. But is it a fire risk?
Ammonia is flammable, but only in a specific mix in the air (between 15 and 28% by volume). However, it still represents a fairly substantial fire hazard in large quantities as it is stored under immense pressure and canisters of ammonia that are heated enough can explode.
Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between ammonia and fire. Here is what you need to know.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Ammonia?
Ammonia is a simple compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, NH3 gas.
It has no color but a very distinct and pungent odor.
It is a waste product of certain organisms, particularly aquatic organisms, and it is needed for nutritional purposes by many terrestrial organisms.
It can be found as a precursor chemical in many forms of food and fertilizer manufacture thanks to this property.
It is a hazardous chemical to use and it is extremely caustic, which means in most places where it is used it is covered by strict regulation in terms of how it may be produced, employed, transported, stored, etc.
Approximately, 175 million tonnes of ammonia are produced each year around the world, and demand for the chemical is surprisingly consistent with no marked increases or decreases in demand over the last decades.
Ammonia, for industrial use, tends to be stored in a solution of ammonia in water (to a concentration of about 28%).
If it ships without the water content, it will be pressurized and/or refrigerated for storage and transport.
It has a boiling point of about -28 degrees Fahrenheit (-33.3 degrees Celsius) which means that if ammonia is not kept under pressure, cold, or in solution, it will very quickly evaporate.
Also read: Is Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) Flammable?
How Is It Used?
The vast majority of ammonia usage is for fertilizers for big agriculture and about 88% of all the ammonia in the United States is put to this purpose.
Globally, 110 million tonnes of ammonia are used in the world’s fields each year!
It is also used to manufacture most nitrogen-containing compounds. This includes everything from hydrogen cyanide to amino acids.
It can also be employed as a household cleaner as it is valued for its ability to leave a “streak-free” shine on steel, glass, ceramics, etc.
It is also used in the food industry for fermentation, as an antimicrobial agent, and in refrigeration.
Oddly, it can also be used as fuel though it only offers about one-third of the energy produced by the equivalent volume of diesel.
Is Ammonia Flammable?
Ammonia is not readily flammable at ordinary concentrations in the air.
However, if the mixture of air to ammonia contains 15-28% ammonia by volume, then ammonia will become flammable.
It may also represent an explosion risk at this point and extreme caution should be used if you need to employ ammonia for any purpose in an enclosed space.
This means that from a management perspective, ammonia is always considered to be a flammable substance, and because of this and its other hazardous and corrosive properties, its use is heavily regulated in the United States and in most other countries.
Also read: Is Hydrochloric Acid Flammable?
Can You Ignite Ammonia?
Under ordinary circumstances, ammonia is not easy to ignite.
But at the right concentration, it will certainly catch fire.
Take a look at this video showing ammonia burning quite readily:
This is because if there is an ammonia leak – the change in concentration could be highly flammable.
Also read: Is Windex (Glass Cleaner) Flammable?
What Happens If You Burn It?
Ammonia is a clean-burning fuel and while the reaction is highly exothermic, the end products of burning ammonia are nitrogen gas and water.
Nitrogen makes up 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere and you’re breathing it in right now and water makes up roughly 80% or more of our bodies, so, we know that these byproducts are not toxic.
However, in certain circumstances, nitrogen, when ammonia is burned, may oxidize too. This results in NO2.
This is “nitrous oxide” or “laughing gas” as it is better known.
This gas, in small quantities, can be used as an anesthetic or even as a recreational drug.
The only danger from this reaction is if the N2 or NO2 produced were to displace all the oxygen in the space and then there would be a suffocation hazard.
Under most circumstances, this is very unlikely.
More worrying would be the potential exposure to ammonia fumes that had not yet been burned, see further down for details.
Also read: Is Acetone Flammable?
Does It Burn Clean?
Yes, ammonia burns cleanly, but it is not considered to be an “eco-friendly” process as the production of ammonia, in the first instance, creates greenhouse gasses.
This is expected to change and ammonia production should be 100% clean by the year 2050, worldwide.
Is It A Fire Hazard?
Yes, ammonia is a fire hazard even if it is not flammable under normal conditions because there is a risk of leaks and thus, the potential to create the right mix for it to become flammable.
Is Ammonia Explosive?
If ammonia is present in the correct quantity to be flammable, it is also an explosion hazard.
In addition, ammonia stored in canisters that are exposed to heat may expand and fracture the canisters – this would cause an initial explosion and then, potentially, the ammonia released from the canister might ignite and explode again.
What Are The Dangers Of Ammonia?
The most dangerous thing about ammonia, to human beings, is its corrosive properties.
The severity of the damage depends on how you are exposed, how much you are exposed to, and for how long.
Ammonia exposure can lead to burning in the eyes, nose, throat, or respiratory tract and can cause eye damage (up to and including blindness) and permanent lung damage.
Can Ammonia Kill You?
Yes, if exposed to sufficient quantities, ammonia can kill you.
How Do You Deal With Ammonia Exposure?
If you have been exposed to large amounts of ammonia, or think that you have:
- Get outside or away from where the exposure took place (though if there is an ammonia leak nearby, you may be instructed to “shelter in place”, if so, shut all windows and doors, switch off any air con, fans or heaters and close your fireplace dampers too.
- Take off any clothing that you think has ammonia on it – try to avoid skin contact with it as you take it off. Place this clothing in a plastic bag and seal it. Seek instructions from a local authority regarding disposal of this clothing, don’t throw it out in the trash.
- Wash any ammonia from your skin and eyes using lots of water. Take out and throw away any contact lenses. Wash your spectacles in soap and water before you put them back on. Never, ever use bleach as part of the cleaning process – it can react with ammonia to release chlorine gas!
- If you are experiencing any ill-effects seek immediate medical attention.
What Are The Long-Term Effects Of Exposure?
This is debatable. OSHA insists that there aren’t any. However, the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) disagrees and says it can cause chronic respiratory tract irritation.
Is Ammonia Cancerous?
To date, we have no evidence of carcinogenic behavior from ammonia. No health authority has classified it as a cancer risk.
How Is Ammonia Poisoning Treated?
There is no antidote for ammonia poisoning. All treatment is focused on supportive measures such as the dilation of airways, irrigating skin and eyes, and diluting any ingested ammonia using either milk or water in copious amounts.
Is Bleach An Ammonia?
No. While ammonia can bleach certain items, ordinary household bleach is made from a mixture of caustic soda, chlorine, and water.
They can both kill germs, though bleach is better at it.
But you must never mix ammonia and bleach as it can release chlorine gas.
Can Ammonia From Cat Pee Kill You?
In theory, ammonia from anything could kill you, if you were to collect your cat’s pee and then filter it down to produce pure ammonia, it would be as deadly as any other form of ammonia.
But as we’re going to assume that you don’t do this, and as a good pet owner, you’re emptying your cat’s litter tray and cleaning it regularly, the odds are pretty good that your cat’s pee will not kill you with its ammonia content.
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