The Ostwald process is a chemical process for producing nitric acid, which was developed by Wilhelm Ostwald (patented 1902). It is a mainstay of the modern chemical industry. Historically and practically it is closely associated with the Haber process, which provides the requisite raw material, ammonia.
Ammonia is converted to nitric acid in two stages. It is oxidized (in a sense "burnt") by heating with oxygen in the presence of a catalyst such as platinum with 10% rhodium, to form nitric oxide and water. This step is strongly exothermic, making it a useful heat source once initiated:
Stage two (combining two reaction steps) is carried out in the presence of water in an absorption apparatus. Initially nitric oxide is oxidized again to yield nitrogen dioxide:
This gas is then readily absorbed by the water, yielding the desired product (nitric acid, albeit in a dilute form), while reducing a portion of it back to nitric oxide:
The NO is recycled, and the acid is concentrated to the required strength by distillation.
Alternatively, if the last step is carried out in air:
Typical conditions for the first stage, which contribute to an overall yield of about 96%, are:
A complication that needs to be taken into consideration involves a side-reaction in the first step that reverts the nitrogen back to N2:
This is a secondary reaction that is minimised by reducing the time the gas mixtures are in contact with the catalyst.
- GB 190200698, Ostwald, Wilhelm, "Improvements in the Manufacture of Nitric Acid and Nitrogen Oxides", published January 9, 1902, issued March 20, 1902
- GB 190208300, Ostwald, Wilhelm, "Improvements in and relating to the Manufacture of Nitric Acid and Oxides of Nitrogen", published December 18, 1902, issued February 26, 1903
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