Nitric acid (HNO3) is a highly corrosive mineral acid.
The pure compound is colorless, but older samples tend to acquire a yellow cast due to decomposition into oxides of nitrogen and water. Most commercially available nitric acid has a concentration of 68% in water. When the solution contains more than 86% HNO3, it is referred to as fuming nitric acid. Depending on the amount of nitrogen dioxide present, fuming nitric acid is further characterized as white fuming nitric acid at concentrations above 95%, or red fuming nitric acid at concentrations above 86%.
Nitric acid is the primary reagent used for nitration – the addition of a nitro group, typically to an organic molecule. While some resulting nitro compounds are shock- and thermally-sensitive explosives, a few are stable enough to be used in munitions and demolition, while others are still more stable and used as pigments in inks and dyes. Nitric acid is also commonly used as a strong oxidizing agent.
Fuming nitric acid
Red fuming nitric acid
A commercial grade of fuming nitric acid contains 98% HNO3 and has a density of 1.50 g/cm3. This grade is often used in the explosives industry. It is not as volatile nor as corrosive as the anhydrous acid and has the approximate concentration of 21.4 M.
Red fuming nitric acid, or RFNA, contains substantial quantities of dissolved nitrogen dioxide (NO2) leaving the solution with a reddish-brown color. Due to the dissolved nitrogen dioxide, the density of red fuming nitric acid is lower at 1.490 g/cm3.
An inhibited fuming nitric acid (either IWFNA, or IRFNA) can be made by the addition of 0.6 to 0.7% hydrogen fluoride (HF). This fluoride is added for corrosion resistance in metal tanks. The fluoride creates a metal fluoride layer that protects the metal.
Anhydrous nitric acid
White fuming nitric acid
White fuming nitric acid, pure nitric acid or WFNA, is very close to anhydrous nitric acid. It is available as 99.9% nitric acid by assay. One specification for white fuming nitric acid is that it has a maximum of 2% water and a maximum of 0.5% dissolved NO2. Anhydrous nitric acid has a density of 1.513 g/cm3 and has the approximate concentration of 24 molar. Anhydrous nitric acid is a colorless mobile liquid with a density of 1.512 g/cm3, which solidifies at −42 °C to form white crystals. As it decomposes to NO2 and water, it obtains a yellow tint. It boils at 83 °C. It is usually stored in a glass shatterproof amber bottle with twice the volume of head space to allow for pressure build up, but even with those precautions the bottle must be vented monthly to release pressure.
Nitric acid is used in the production of ammonium nitrate for fertilizers, making plastics, and in the manufacture of dyes. It is also used for making explosives such as nitroglycerin and TNT. When it is combined with hydrochloric acid, an element called aqua regia is formed.
By far the principal use of nitric acid (80%) is in the manufacture of fertilizers. Of this 96% is used to make ammonium nitrate and calcium ammonium nitrate. A relatively small amount of ammonium nitrate is used to make explosives.
Some nitric acid is used to make intermediates in the polymer industry, notably in the manufacture of hexanedioic acid (adipic acid) to make polyamides and TDI (toluene diisocyanate or methylbenzene diisocyanate) and dinitrobenzene two of a range of reagents used to make polyurethanes. Nitrobenzene is used to make aniline which is a key reagent for making dyes.