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Everything to know about Ammonia (NH3)

Ammonia (NH3) is a common air pollutant. Despite it not being included in many standard air quality guidelines, such as the World Health Organization’s, we at Breeze Technologies consider it vital to be monitored. Our sensors are thus calibrated to measure ammonia, and it is in our air quality index (AQI). Read on to find out why.

What is ammonia?

Ammonia (NH3) is a compound made of nitrogen and hydrogen molecules. It is a colourless gas with a pungent odour, and is reactive: it forms secondary particulate matter (PM2.5) when combined with other pollutants in the atmosphere. This occurs through a process called nucleation, where the gaseous molecules of ammonia condense to form either liquid or solid particles suspended in the atmosphere.

The reactions that form secondary particulate matter using ammonia are:

  • SO2 oxidizes to sulphuric acid (H2SO4) and reacts with NH3 to form ammonium sulphate ((NH4)2SO4)
  • NOx oxidizes to nitric acid (HNO3) and reacts with NH3 to form ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3). 

In conclusion, ammonium sulphate ((NH4)2SO4) and ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) are secondary particulate matter formed through ammonia (NH3) reacting with other pollutants. 

What are sources of ammonia?

The main sources of ammonia are agricultural processes, particularly in fertilizer production and livestock waste management. Animal manure, which naturally contains NH3 is mixed with other unusable organic matter such as hay and water runoff to form a slurry. This mixture is left to sit until it is converted into a natural fertilizer. The gases that are released during this process naturally then include ammonia. Therefore, NH3 concentrations increase drastically in spring from these types of agricultural activities. It is estimated that 80% to 95% of ammonia emissions in developed nations are a result of agriculture, which then reacts with the aforementioned H2SO4 from SO2 and HNO3 from NOx to create PM. In fact, up to 58% of particulate matter in European cities is from ammonia used in farming. 

Indoor causes of NH3 include cigarette smoke, cleaning solutions, and building materials.

What is the health impact of ammonia?

Ammonia irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract if inhaled in small amounts due to its corrosive nature. In large quantities, NH3 is poisonous and can have negative effects on the respiratory system, which includes decreased lung function.

The real issue lies with the PM2.5 formed by ammonia, which has been linked to reduced lung function, pneumonia, irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, strokes, and diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. PM2.5 is particularly deadly due to its small size, which allows it to penetrate deep into the respiratory and circulatory systems, causing damage to the lungs, heart, and brain.

What is the environmental impact of ammonia?

Ammonia pollutes and contributes to the eutrophication and acidification of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. When used as fertilizer, the nitrogen from NH3 can leach into the soil, and increase its acidity, thereby affecting plant growth. In addition, the NH3 can be washed off into nearby waterways. It is toxic to aquatic species; buildup of the pollutant within their bodies leads to death. The increase in nitrogen also causes overgrowth of algae, which then blocks light and deprives plants of the nutrients they need, thus causing their demise. 

Plants such as lichens and mosses are particularly sensitive to changes in nitrogen level. Even a slight increase can cause them to die. This affects surrounding wildlife that depend on these species for survival. 

How can ammonia emissions be lessened?

Simple measures can be implemented to reduce ammonia levels, but they must be introduced on a national level. This includes limiting fertilizer applications, covering slurry pits, utilizing tanks for fertilizer production, taking care to prevent any water contamination, and planting trees and hedges to absorb some of the gas. These measures, however, are only effective with proper monitoring. Tracking the changes in ammonia emission levels will help gauge the success of these actions. And at Breeze Technologies, we have the perfect solution. As stated at the very beginning, we consider NH3 to be a major air pollutant, unlike the WHO and even the EU standards. Our compact, lower-cost sensors are easy to deploy on rural infrastructure, with the data gathered in real-time to form an effective air quality network run on our Breeze Environmental Cloud. Contact us today to make clean air a reality for all!