Nitric Acid


The common perception of ‘acid’ suggests astringency, corrosive-ness and something capable of dissolution of another substance. However, not all acids are, or can be seen to be thus, except that nitric acid might be considered to be an extremely destructive compound in that it was the basis of explosives and also fertilizers – the almost diametric opposite of an explosive as it helps plants to grow. ​However, this versatile acid (there’s many nitric acid uses) has found to capable of use in many industrial and chemical processes:

​As an integral part of explosives manufacture that, although known for a long time, derived from the lack of natural nitrates to fuel the German war effort prior to the First World War. Nitric acid can be used to manufacture components of trinitrotoluene (TNT) and also the ubiquitous and so-called plastic explosive ‘Semtex’.

​As an agricultural fertilizer where it promotes vigorous growth in plants, there is, however, an unfortunate side effect in that nitrates are very soluble in water and when applied to well draining soil, they leach into the watercourse and eventually reach streams and rivers. Once in the water it stimulates the growth of algae that, in turn, deoxygenates the water to stifle growth in other plant forms and animal life.

​It can be used as an oxidizing agent in the production of some solid fuels for rocket propulsion; component of rocket fuel acting as an oxidizer

​As an ageing agent in woodworking where it can be used in very dilute forms (typically below 10%) to change the appearance of some woods and to produce a color similar to that of oiled or waxed surfaces old.

​In the jewelry trade nitric acid can be used to identify low-grade alloys and assess purity of gold content.

​It can be used in a solution with alcohol and water to etch metals by removing some surfaces.

​Nitric acid is commonly used in the food processing and dairy sectors to remove calcium and magnesium deposited during the manufacturing or conversion processes or which may result from continued exposure to hard-water.

​Whilst known of since the 9th century its mass production didn’t really take off until the early 20th Century with the synthesis of nitric acid by a German chemist, Wilhelm Ostwald, and experiments by the German corporation BASF, both of whom were attempting to produce nitrates for use in the weapons industry prior to World War One (nitric acid uses).

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