Formic Acid

Formic acid is the simplest form of carboxylic acid. It is also known as methanoic acid and its chemical formula is HCO2H or HCOOH. Formic acid occurs naturally is specific ants and it is a vital intermediate in chemical amalgamation.

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The term "formic" has been derived from the Latin word "formica", which denotes ants. This refers to the early isolation of formic acid via distillation of ant bodies. Salts, esters as well as the anions obtained from formic acid are known as formates.

Aside from occurring naturally, formic acid is often prepared artificially in laboratories. The naturally occurring formic acid is usually present in the stings and bites of various insects, such as ants and bees. This chemical compound is responsible for the irritation that happens soon after an ant bite and a bee sting. While concentrated form of formic acid may be very harmful, it is generally used in food products in normal levels in the form of a preservative or in the form of a pesticide on crops. Formic acid does not have any color in its purest form, but its odour is very potent. While it is commonly used to keep predators away, there are several practical and useful uses of formic acid for humans. In fact, it is used for various purposes in our everyday life.

Owing to the multifarious functions of formic acid in the life of humans, this chemical is considered to be a highly interesting substance. Besides the acid's practical applications in agriculture, industry as well as protective mechanisms, this chemical is also responsible for a number of extremely interesting actions as well as interactions. Some of these include its function in the digestive system of an anteater. Contrary to majority of the mammals, the stomach of an anteater does not contain any hydrochloric acid - the basic chemical that is responsible for digestion of ingested foods in humans. Ants contain a very high concentration of formic acid and, hence, the diet of anteaters is high in formic acid content. As a result, the anteater obtains its entire required digestive juices from the formic acid supplied by the ants it consumes.

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When used in very high concentrations, formic acid may be highly hazardous. This chemical is not only very versatile, but also highly effective food additive. Moreover, it has a number of industrial applications. However, when ingested at normal concentrations, formic acid is metabolized by the body very easily and rapidly. Moreover, it is eliminated from the body in a healthy manner and safely.

Health benefits and uses

Formic acid possesses anti-bacterial properties and, hence, this chemical offers us a variety of health benefits. Aside from combating bacterial infections in our respiratory tract and digestive system, formic acid is also beneficial for fighting these microbes in various other systems of our body.

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One of the main uses of formic acid is in the form of a preservative as well as an anti-bacterial agent in the livestock feed. People in Europe apply this chemical on silage (counting fresh hay) with a view to encourage fermentation of lactic acid as well as to hold back butyric acid formation. At the same time, formic acid helps to accelerate the fermentation process. When applied in low temperatures, this chemical also reduces the depletion of nutritional value of various foods. Moreover, use of formic acid also prevents specific decomposition processes and helps the feed to keep hold of its nutritional value for a prolonged period. Consequently, formic acid is extensively used for preserving cattle's winter feed. Formic acid is also used in the poultry industry where this chemical is occasionally added to feed with a view to eliminate E. coli bacteria.

Formic acid also has various industrial applications and it is most widely used for leather production. Since this chemical is extremely sharp, it has been found to be excellent for this purpose. While formic acid is used very often in the leather production process, several other industries have also started using this chemical in the process involved in dyeing as well as finishing textiles. In addition, formic acid is also widely employed in the form of a coagulant in several processes involved in rubber manufacturing.

In a number of applications, formic acid is also used as a substitute for mineral acids, for instance in a variety of commercially available cleaning products like toilet bowl cleaner and lime scale cleaner. A number of formate esters are also used in the form of artificial flavoring agents and in perfumes. In fact, beekeepers employ formic acid in the form of a miticide to eliminate Acarapis woodi (tracheal mite) and also the Varroa mite. Currently, researchers are exploring formic acid for its potential application in fuel cells.

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In 1889, a Welsh journalist and explorer named Henry Morton Stanley told the London's Royal Geographical Society in a statement that the native inhabitants of Congo very effectively used arrows poisoned by a chemical against the members of his party. This poison was made from powdered red ants, which were subsequently cooked in palm oil. He attributed the effectiveness of this poison to formic acid made by the red ants.

Aside from the use of formic acid in the textile, leather and rubber industries, recently scientists have developed a number of derivatives of this chemical which are used to combat slimy road conditions in Switzerland and Austria. In fact, these countries endure extremely bitter winters during which the roads become very slippery and dangerous. Now, they are employing formates, which are basically different salts obtained from formic acid to eliminate the slippery condition of their roads.

Using these formates has a number of advantages. They are further effective compared to the conventional salt treatments, and they are also more environmental friendly. Provided you use them in the right manner, formates have the potential to significantly increase the ability to grip surfaces that are otherwise slick. In addition, they also help in removing the slime of the surface using various technologies and machines.

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Across the world, a large part of the commercially produced formic acid is used for agriculture. Since formic acid possesses natural anti-bacterial attributes, it is increasingly being employed in the form of an anti-bacterial preservative as well as a pesticide. In the agricultural industry, this chemical is generally employed in the form of a food preservative. In addition, formic acid is also included in animal feed plus silage. When added to silage, formic acid performs dual functions. Aside from providing anti-bacterial support to some extent, in fact this chemical enables the fermentation of silage at lower temperatures, thereby significantly lessening the general time taken to produce it. At the same time, it also augments the nutriment value of the end product.

Side effects and cautions

Subject to its concentration, formic acid can either be barely discernible or extremely hazardous. However, generally when we interact with this chemical, we only come in contact with extremely feeble concentrations of this acid. As a result, there is very little or no fear of being harmed by this chemical. On the contrary, when you come in contact with elevated concentrations of formic acid, it may result in several hazardous side effects.

The highly corrosive property of formic acid in its most potent form is considered to be the most dangerous aspect of this chemical. Since this chemical is extremely corrosive, one needs to be additionally cautious while using it, as it can often result in serious harms when it is inhaled, touched directly or swallowed. In fact, this acid in its most potent form can cause harm to various parts of our body. It may lead to nausea, ulcers, blisters, burns and tremendous discomfort in the region where it comes in contact with our body. Moreover, it has been observed that consuming formic acid in very high concentrations may cause damage to our kidneys and the liver. This is a very unlikely situation, unless you are handling formic acid in high concentrations. Hence, it is advisable that you should always stay away from using very potent formic acid.


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