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Archive for June, 2012

Ammonia: All You’ve Ever Wanted To Know

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

By Mark Hugdahl, Technical Director,  ALS Environmental – Canada

The synthetic production of ammonia by the Haber-Bosch process has been called the most important invention of the 20th century. Fritz Haber received the Nobel prize in 1919 for pioneering the “fixation” of nitrogen, where nitrogen gas is converted to ammonia, a reactive form of nitrogen that can easily be taken up by plants. Nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers now provides more than half of the nutrients required by the world’s crops. Without the ammonia produced from the Haber-Bosch process, our planet could not feed seven billion people.

Ammonia plays a key role in the global nitrogen cycle, and is produced naturally through the decomposition of nitrogen-rich organic matter. However, it is also a very common environmental pollutant, and in 1990 was listed as the top priority on Environment Canada’s Canadian Chemical Spill Priority List. Outside the fertilizer industry, anthropogenic point sources of ammonia include the textile industry, household chemicals, explosives, the plastics industry, oil refineries, iron and steel mills, meat processing plants, and sewage treatment plants.

At low levels, ammonia in drinking water is not considered toxic to humans. It is produced naturally in the human body, and is efficiently targeted and detoxified by specific enzymes. However, ammonia is highly toxic to fish and amphibians at very low concentrations, since they lack these enzymes.

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