Ammonia is a common liquid used in households and industry. With its distinctive smell, ammonia is one of the chemicals most easily identified by the average person. Many of ammonia’s uses and benefits derive from its pH, the measure of how acidic or basic a chemical substance is. Ammonia does have a standard pH and that number explains many of the properties of the chemical.
A molecule of ammonia is made up of a negatively-charged nitrogen ion and three positively-charged hydrogen ions, giving ammonia a chemical formula of NH3. The pH of standard ammonia is about 11.
Ammonia is a base, which means it reacts in water to form a positively-charged ammonium (NH4+) ion and a negatively-charged hydroxide (OH-). As a base, ammonia has a bitter taste--although you should not taste it--a soapy feel and the ability to neutralize acids. Ammonia is considered a weak base, so it only exhibits the common corrosive effects of many bases when in high concentration.
Ammonia can occur naturally or can be manufactured. Natural ammonia, which exists in trace quantities in the atmosphere, typically derives from the decomposition of organic matter. Most ammonia, however, is created via chemical processes that bond together the nitrogen and hydrogen ions.
High concentrations of ammonia are extremely dangerous if inhaled, ingested or touched. Ammonia inhalation is usually avoidable, due to the strong smell, but can cause serious respiratory distress. Highly concentrated ammonia can burn the skin or eyes. Treatment involves flushing the affected area with water. If ammonia is ingested, do not induce vomiting but seek medical help immediately. If you use ammonia as a household cleaner, be especially careful to never mix the substance with bleach. A deadly gas called chloramine is the result of such a mixture.
Ammonia mixes with water and is used in many household cleaners as a result. Most of these cleaners contain between 5 percent and 10 percent ammonia by volume. Commercial cleaners also use ammonia, but the concentrations are much greater, being as high as 25 percent to 30 percent ammonia. Ammonia is also widely used as an ingredient in fertilizers, where it provides nitrogen to the soil. High concentration ammonia is also used to etch metals and provide commercial refrigeration.