NITRIC ACID (aqua fortis), HNO 3 , an important mineral acid. It is mentioned in the De inventione veritatis ascribed to Geber, wherein it is obtained by calcining a mixture of nitre, alum and blue vitriol. It was again described by Albert le Grand in the 13th century and by Raimon Lull, who prepared it by heating nitre and clay and called it " eau forte." Glauber devised the process in common use to-day, viz. by heating nitre with strong sulphuric acid. Its true nature was not determined until the 18th century, when A. L. Lavoisier (1776) showed that it contained oxygen, whilst in 1785 H. Cavendish determined its constitution and showed that it could be synthesized by passing a stream of electric sparks through moist air. The acid is found to exist to a slight extent in the free condition in some waters, but chiefly occurs in combination with various metals, as nitrates, principally as nitre or saltpetre, KNOs, and Chile saltpetre, NaNOs. It is formed when a stream of electric sparks is passed through moist air, and in the oxidation of nitrogenous matter in the presence of water.
For experimental purposes it is usually obtained by distilling potassium or sodium nitrate with concentrated sulphuric acid. The acid so obtained usually contains more or less water and some dissolved nitrogen peroxide which gives it a yellowish red colour. It may be purified by redistillation over barium and silver nitrates, followed by treatment of the distillate with a stream of ozonized air. The product so obtained is then redistilled under diminished pressure and finally distilled again from a sealed and evacuated apparatus (V. Veley and Manley, Phil. Trans., 1898, A. 291, p. 365). On the large scale it is obtained by distilling Chile saltpetre with concentrated sulphuric acid in horizontal cast iron stills, the vapours being condensed in a series of stoneware Woulfe's bottles. la practice the theoretical quantity of acid and Chile saltpetre is not used, but the charge is so regulated that the mixture of acid and neutral sodium sulphate formed in the retort remains liquid at the temperature employed, and consequently can be readily removed. Various modifications have been made in the form of the condensing apparatus, the Guttmann condenser (Jour. Soc. Chem. Ind., 1893, p. 203) being now frequently employed. This consists of a series of vertical earthenware condensing tubes through which compressed air is passed in order to reduce the quantity of nitrogen peroxide to a minimum. The temperature of the condenser is so regulated as to bring about the condensation of the nitric acid only, which runs out at the bottom of the pipe, whilst any uncondensed steam, nitrogen peroxide and other impurities pass into a Lunge tower, where they meet a descending stream of water and are condensed, giving rise to an impure acid. F. Valentiner [Eng. Pat. 610 (1892), 19192 (1893)] recommends distillation and condensation of nitric acid in a partial vacuum. For the production of nitric acid from air see NITROGEN. Fuming nitric acid consists of a solution of nitrogen peroxide in concentrated nitric acid and is prepared by distilling dry sodium nitrate with concentrated sulphuric acid.
Nitric acid is a colourless strongly fuming liquid, having a specific gravity of i -50394 (24-2 C.) (V. Veley, Proc. Roy.Soc.,62, p. 223). It is exceedingly hygroscopic and corrosive. On distillation, the pure acid begins to boil at 78-2 C. (W. Ramsay), partial decomposition into water, oxygen and nitrogen peroxide taking place. The acid solidifies when strongly cooled, the solid melting at - 47 C. Concentrated nitric acid forms with water a constant boiling mixture which boils at 120-5 C., contains 68% of acid and possesses a specific gravity of 1-414 (15-5 C.). If a more dilute acid than this be distilled, water passes over in excess and the residue in the retort reaches the above composition and boiling point; on distillation of a stronger acid, excess of acid passes into the distillate and the boiling point rises until the values of the constant boiling mixture are reached. On the hydrates of nitric acid see V. Veley, Jour. Chem. Soc., 1903, 83, p. 1015, and F. W. Kuster, Zeit. anorg. Chem. 1904, 41, p. i. On mixing nitric acid with water there is a rise of temperature and a contraction in volume. The acid is a powerful oxidizing agent. It attacks most metals readily, usually with production of a nitrate or hydrated oxide of the metal and one or other of the oxides of nitrogen, or occasionally with the production of ammonium salts; magnesium, however, liberates hydrogen from the very dilute acid. Its action on metals depends in most cases on the temperature, strength of the acid, and the nature of the products of reaction. Thus in the case of copper, it is found that the diluted acid acts very slowly upon the metal at first, but as the reaction proceeds the copper dissolves more rapidly up to a certain point and then the rate of solution again diminishes. This is possibly due to the accelerating action of the nitrous acid which is produced in the direct action of the copper on the nitric acid and which, when a certain amount has been formed in the system, begins to decompose, thus 3HNO 2 =HNQ3-f- 2NO+H 2 O (V. Veley, Phil. Trans., 1891, 182, p. 279; G. O. Higley, Amer. Chem. Jour., 1893, 15, p. 71, 1895, 17, p. 18, 1896, 18, p. 587). Iron when brought into contact with nitric acid under certain conditions, remains passive to the acid. Thus at 55 C. it is passive to an acid of specific gravity 1-42, and at 31 C. to an acid of specific gravity 1-38. No satisfactory explanation of this passivity has been given (see J. B. Senderens, Bull. Soc. Chem., 1896 , 15, p. 691; A. Finkelstein, Zeit. phys. Chem., 1901, 39, p. 91; W. J. Miiller, ibid. 1904, 48, P- 577). Nitric acid is without action on gold, platinum, indium and rhodium.
The salts of nitric acid, known as nitrates, are mostly readily soluble in water and crystallize well. They are all decomposed when heated to a sufficiently high temperature, with evolution for the most part of oxygen and nitrogen peroxide, leaving a residue of oxide of the metal. They may be recognized by the fact that on the addition of a solution of ferrous sulphate, followed by that of concentrated sulphuric acid (the mixture being kept quite cold), the ferrous sulphate solution becomes of a deep brown colour, owing to the reducing action of the ferrous sulphate on the nitric acid which is liberated by the action of the sulphuric acid on the nitrate. As an alternative method the nitrate may be warmed with some fragments of copper and sulphuric acid which has been diluted with its own volume of water, when characteristic brown vapours will be seen.
Nitric acid finds extensive application in the manufacture of sulphuric acid, certain coal-tar colouring matters, explosives, and in the production of various nitrates.
In medicine, nitric acid is used externally in a pure state as a caustic to destroy chancres, warts and phagadenic ulcers; and diluted preparations are employed in the treatment of dyspepsia, etc. Poisoning by strong nitric acid produces a widespread gastroenteritis, burning pain in the oesophagus and abdomen and bloody diarrhoea. There may also be blood in the urine. Death occurs from collapse or from secondary destructive changes in the intestinal canal. Characteristic yellow staining of the skin round the mouth from the formation of xanthoproteic acid serves to distinguish it from poisoning by other acids. The antidotes are mild alkalis, together with the use of opium to relieve pain.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)