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ACIDS > Nitric Acid

Nitric acid, also known as aqua fortis and spirit of niter, is a highly corrosive strong 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.

Formula: HNO3, Density: 1.51 g/cm³, Molar mass: 63.01 g/mol, Boiling point: 83 °C, IUPAC ID: Nitric acid, Melting point: -42 °C

Uses :

Nitric acid in a laboratory.

The main use of nitric acid is for the production of fertilizers. Nitric acid is neutralized with ammonia to give ammonium nitrate. This application consumes 75–80% of the 26M tons produced annually (1987). The other main applications are for the production of explosives, nylon precursors, and specialty organic compounds.

Precursor to organic nitrogen compounds

In organic synthesis, industrial and otherwise, the nitro group is a versatile functionality. Most derivatives of aniline are prepared via nitration of aromatic compounds followed by reduction. Nitrations entail combining nitric and sulfuric acids to generate the nitronium ion, which electrophilically reacts with aromatic compounds such as benzene. Many explosives, e.g. TNT, are prepared in this way.
See also: nitration

The precursor to nylon, adipic acid, is produced on a large scale by oxidation of cyclohexanone and cyclohexanol with nitric acid.
Rocket propellant

Nitric acid has been used in various forms as the oxidizer in liquid-fueled rockets. These forms include red fuming nitric acid, white fuming nitric acid, mixtures with sulfuric acid, and these forms with HF inhibitor. IRFNA (inhibited red fuming nitric acid) was one of 3 liquid fuel components for the BOMARC missile.

Niche uses
Analytical reagent

In elemental analysis by ICP-MS, ICP-AES, GFAA, and Flame AA, dilute nitric acid (0.5 to 5.0%) is used as a matrix compound for determining metal traces in solutions. Ultrapure trace metal grade acid is required for such determination, because small amounts of metal ions could affect the result of the analysis.

It is also typically used in the digestion process of turbid water samples, sludge samples, solid samples as well as other types of unique samples which require elemental analysis via ICP-MS, ICP-OES, ICP-AES, GFAA and flame atomic absorption spectroscopy. Typically these digestions use a 50% solution of the purchased HNO3 mixed with Type 1 DI Water.

In electrochemistry, nitric acid is used as a chemical doping agent for organic semiconductors, and in purification processes for raw carbon nanotubes.


In a low concentration (approximately 10%), nitric acid is often used to artificially age pine and maple. The color produced is a grey-gold very much like very old wax or oil finished wood (wood finishing).
Etchant and cleaning agent

The corrosive effects of nitric acid are exploited for a number of specialty applications, such as pickling stainless steel. A solution of nitric acid, water and alcohol, Nital, is used for etching of metals to reveal the microstructure. ISO 14104 is one of the standards detailing this well known procedure.

Commercially available aqueous blends of 5–30% nitric acid and 15–40% phosphoric acid are commonly used for cleaning food and dairy equipment primarily to remove precipitated calcium and magnesium compounds (either deposited from the process stream or resulting from the use of hard water during production and cleaning). The phosphoric acid content helps to passivate ferrous alloys against corrosion by the dilute nitric acid.

Nitric acid can be used as a spot test for alkaloids like LSD, giving a variety of colours depending on the alkaloid.