Sulfuric acid is a chemical compound with many industrial uses. It is actually as widely needed as an industrial agent or raw material that it is also known as the king of chemicals or the universal chemical. Most industries require sulfuric acid, which is one of the most common chemicals in the world.
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This mineral acid has the chemical structure H2SO4 and has the alternative names vitriol and sulphuric acid. It looks like syrup, without any color or smell. It is water soluble but it causes a reaction that releases a considerable amount of heat.
Sulfuric acid is a very strong acid, which makes it extremely corrosive. In high concentrations the acid also has very powerful oxidizing and dehydrating effects. It is so highly reactive that can actually absorb water from the air. It must be handled with extreme care because it is very dangerous even in low concentrations. If sulfuric acid makes contact with human skin, it causes severe wounds, both chemical and thermal burns.
This national production of sulfuric acid is usually a reliable benchmark of a country's industrial strength. This shows how important this chemical is, in most sectors of industry. There are many methods to produce it, the most common are the wet sulfuric acid process, lead chamber process and the contract process.
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More than half of the sulfuric acid produced in the world ends up used in the fertilizer industry. It is also a key raw ingredient in chemistry. Besides its main role in fertilizer manufacturing, it is also in high demand in mineral processing, chemical synthesis, oil refining and wastewater treatment. It is also used for domestic products; the most common of these are lead-acid batteries (where it serves as an electrolyte), acidic drain cleaners and other cleaning products.
This powerful chemical must be handled with extreme care because it can cause serious burns. This is the main reason why it is rarely used in households, and only in very low concentrations. It is still widely employed as an ingredient in many house cleaning brands. Many home products would not be so effective without the high chemical reactivity added by sulfuric acid.
In pure form, the acid is colorless and odorless, with an oily consistency. It is the main ingredient of many fertilizers and also used in ore processing, the production of batteries and wastewater treatment. Sulfuric acid is actually part of about 65% of all fertilizers available on the market today. The acid itself is produced through a chemical reaction between several raw basic inorganic compounds.
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The oldest production process starts with burning various sulfur compounds, which releases the gas sulfur dioxide. Heating this gas at a temperature of 232°C produces sulfur trioxide. The first chemist who produced sulfuric acid was Jabir Ibn Hayyan, by adding sulfur trioxide to water. Persian physician and alchemist Ibn Zakariya al-Razi continued to study the acid and discovered one century later that it can destroy both copper and iron oxides.
Sulfuric acid can be mixed with many other compounds in order to create industrial products. Aluminum sulfates for example are produced by mixing the acid and aluminum. Aluminum sulfates are then needed in the manufacture of paper, since they make the fibers in wood pulp bond together. Water can be purified using a mixture of dioxides and aluminum sulfates. They are needed in large amounts in modern water treatment facilities.
Caprolactum is another important industrial substance that is made from a mixture of sulfuric acid and cyclohexanoneoxime and required for nylon production. Sulfuric acid is used in the production of hydrochloric acid, which is a key raw material on its own. Gasoline is refined from raw petroleum using a combination of sulfuric and sodium acids.
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The acid has a very unstable chemical structure and is extremely reactive. Water should be added to the acid and never acid to water, in order to avoid a dangerous process. The result of adding water to the acid can be a real boiling water explosion. The reaction generates large amounts of highly flammable hydrogen gas.
Since it is very difficult to handle, sulfuric acid is rarely found as a chemical for household use. It causes severe burns on the skin, even if a very small amount makes contact with it. It produces dangerous gases after reacting with various other materials, which can burn the inner respiratory system or cause breathing to become very difficult. The pure acid is not flammable and doesn't explode on its own. However, it becomes extremely volatile and a real hazard when combined with almost any other substance, including water. Contact with sulfuric acid causes deep burns and people exposed to it can enter a state of shock. Immediate medical attention is needed, especially if the acid or any of its derivatives is ingested.
Sulfuric acid is one of the key components of batteries. The most common types that use it are the one needed by cars, tractors and lawn machinery. Batteries rely on the reaction between sulfuric acid and lead, which produces both inert chemicals and the flow of electrons that is the actual electric power. This reaction must be repeated in order for power to be generated, which explains why batteries eventually run out. Sulfuric acid is also found in rechargeable batteries. These include compounds that reverse the reaction, allowing for the battery to be used again.
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The most powerful brands of drain cleaners are based on sulfuric acid. These drain openers are the most powerful available on the market but using them is a hazard, since they can cause very serious burns. Many people argue that cleaners based on sulfuric acid should be outlawed, and only trained professionals should be allowed to use them. They are actually so powerful that some people have successfully used them as makeshift weapons. Disfigurement and deep burns result when such a drain cleaner is thrown in the face of a person.
Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the three key elements needed by plants to live. Inorganic phosphate fertilizers, some of the most common fertilizers used in gardens and yards, are manufactured using sulfuric acid. It all starts with a reaction between phosphate minerals and sulfuric acid, which results in phosphoric acid. The acid needs further processing in order for plants to be able to break it down and assimilate the nutrients. Sulfuric acid is also needed to produce ammonium sulfate, another very common household fertilizer.
Concentrated sulfuric acid has strong dehydrating properties and is able to absorb water after making contact with various materials. It is used for this purpose in the production of rayon. Paper factories need large amounts of aluminium sulphate, another derivative of sulphuric acid. It is also needed to produce paint ink, paint and other pigments. The acid is also an important reactive and catalyst in the chemical industry.
The acid is also used in agriculture, specifically in potato harvesting. Dedicated contractor companies are hired to spray the fields with sulfuric acid before the harvest. This kills the green parts in about two days; they dry out very fast and allow harvesting machines to do their job with minimal tangling. While several spraying mixtures exist, the one based on sulfuric acid is one of the most effective.
Sulfuric acid is an ingredient in the production of several medicinal drugs. The most widely used of these are the ones required for the chemotherapy treatments. The DNA of cancer cells is weaker than the one of normal cells, so this procedure tries to kill them by destroying the DNA component. Alkylating antineoplastic agents, produced with sulfuric acid, are the drugs used in chemotherapy for the so-called alkylation of DNA. Debacterol is a very popular topical ointment that includes acid as an ingredient. It is applied to cure skin infections and canker sores.