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sulfuric acid

sulfuric acid, chemical compound, H2SO4, colorless, odorless, extremely corrosive, oily liquid. It is sometimes called oil of vitriol.

Concentrated Sulfuric Acid

When heated, the pure 100% acid loses sulfur trioxide gas, SO3, until a constant-boiling solution, or azeotrope, containing about 98.5% H2SO4 is formed at 337°C. Concentrated sulfuric acid is a weak acid (see acids and bases) and a poor electrolyte because relatively little of it is dissociated into ions at room temperature. When cold it does not react readily with such common metals as iron or copper. When hot it is an oxidizing agent, the sulfur in it being reduced; sulfur dioxide gas may be released. Hot concentrated sulfuric acid reacts with most metals and with several nonmetals, e.g., sulfur and carbon. Because the concentrated acid has a fairly high boiling point, it can be used to release more volatile acids from their salts, e.g., when sodium chloride (NaCl), or common salt, is heated with concentrated sulfuric acid, hydrogen chloride gas, HCl, is evolved.

Concentrated sulfuric acid has a very strong affinity for water. It is sometimes used as a drying agent and can be used to dehydrate (chemically remove water from) many compounds, e.g., carbohydrates. It reacts with the sugar sucrose, C12H22O11, removing eleven molecules of water, H2O, from each molecule of sucrose and leaving a brittle spongy black mass of carbon and diluted sulfuric acid. The acid reacts similarly with skin, cellulose, and other plant and animal matter.

When the concentrated acid mixes with water, large amounts of heat are released; enough heat can be released at once to boil the water and spatter the acid. To dilute the acid, the acid should be added slowly to cold water with constant stirring to limit the buildup of heat. Sulfuric acid reacts with water to form hydrates with distinct properties.

Dilute Sulfuric Acid

Dilute sulfuric acid is a strong acid and a good electrolyte; it is highly ionized, much of the heat released in dilution coming from hydration of the hydrogen ions. The dilute acid has most of the properties of common strong acids. It turns blue litmus red. It reacts with many metals (e.g., with zinc), releasing hydrogen gas, H2, and forming the sulfate of the metal. It reacts with most hydroxides and oxides, with some carbonates and sulfides, and with some salts. Since it is dibasic (i.e., it has two replaceable hydrogen atoms in each molecule), it forms both normal sulfates (with both hydrogens replaced, e.g., sodium sulfate, Na2SO4) and acid sulfates, also called bisulfates or hydrogen sulfates (with only one hydrogen replaced, e.g., sodium bisulfate, NaHSO4).

Production of Sulfuric Acid

There are two major processes (lead chamber and contact) for production of sulfuric acid, and it is available commercially in a number of grades and concentrations. The lead chamber process, the older of the two processes, is used to produce much of the acid used to make fertilizers; it produces a relatively dilute acid (62%–78% H2SO4). The contact process produces a purer, more concentrated acid but requires purer raw materials and the use of expensive catalysts. In both processes sulfur dioxide is oxidized and dissolved in water. The sulfur dioxide is obtained by burning sulfur, by burning pyrites (iron sulfides), by roasting nonferrous sulfide ores preparatory to smelting, or by burning hydrogen sulfide gas. Some sulfuric acid is also made from ferrous sulfate waste solutions from pickling iron and steel and from waste acid sludge from oil refineries.

Lean Chamber Process

In the lead chamber process hot sulfur dioxide gas enters the bottom of a reactor called a Glover tower where it is washed with nitrous vitriol (sulfuric acid with nitric oxide, NO, and nitrogen dioxide, NO2, dissolved in it) and mixed with nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide gases; some of the sulfur dioxide is oxidized to sulfur trioxide and dissolved in the acid wash to form tower acid or Glover acid (about 78% H2SO4). From the Glover tower a mixture of gases (including sulfur dioxide and trioxide, nitrogen oxides, nitrogen, oxygen, and steam) is transferred to a lead-lined chamber where it is reacted with more water. The chamber may be a large, boxlike room or an enclosure in the form of a truncated cone. Sulfuric acid is formed by a complex series of reactions; it condenses on the walls and collects on the floor of the chamber. There may be from three to twelve chambers in a series; the gases pass through each in succession. The acid produced in the chambers, often called chamber acid or fertilizer acid, contains 62% to 68% H2SO4. After the gases have passed through the chambers they are passed into a reactor called the Gay-Lussac tower where they are washed with cooled concentrated acid (from the Glover tower); the nitrogen oxides and unreacted sulfur dioxide dissolve in the acid to form the nitrous vitriol used in the Glover tower. Remaining waste gases are usually discharged into the atmosphere.

Contact Process

In the contact process, purified sulfur dioxide and air are mixed, heated to about 450°C, and passed over a catalyst; the sulfur dioxide is oxidized to sulfur trioxide. The catalyst is usually platinum on a silica or asbestos carrier or vanadium pentoxide on a silica carrier. The sulfur trioxide is cooled and passed through two towers. In the first tower it is washed with oleum (fuming sulfuric acid, 100% sulfuric acid with sulfur trioxide dissolved in it). In the second tower it is washed with 97% sulfuric acid; 98% sulfuric acid is usually produced in this tower. Waste gases are usually discharged into the atmosphere. Acid of any desired concentration may be produced by mixing or diluting the products of this process.

Uses of Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid is one of the most important industrial chemicals. More of it is made each year than is made of any other manufactured chemical; more than 40 million tons of it were produced in the United States in 1990. It has widely varied uses and plays some part in the production of nearly all manufactured goods. The major use of sulfuric acid is in the production of fertilizers, e.g., superphosphate of lime and ammonium sulfate. It is widely used in the manufacture of chemicals, e.g., in making hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, sulfate salts, synthetic detergents, dyes and pigments, explosives, and drugs. It is used in petroleum refining to wash impurities out of gasoline and other refinery products. Sulfuric acid is used in processing metals, e.g., in pickling (cleaning) iron and steel before plating them with tin or zinc. Rayon is made with sulfuric acid. It serves as the electrolyte in the lead-acid storage battery commonly used in motor vehicles (acid for this use, containing about 33% H2SO4 and with specific gravity about 1.25, is often called battery acid).

History of Sulfuric Acid

Although sulfuric acid is now one of the most widely used chemicals, it was probably little known before the 16th cent. It was prepared by Johann Van Helmont (c.1600) by destructive distillation of green vitriol (ferrous sulfate) and by burning sulfur. The first major industrial demand for sulfuric acid was the Leblanc process for making sodium carbonate (developed c.1790). Sulfuric acid was produced at Nordhausen from green vitriol but was expensive. A process for its synthesis by burning sulfur with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was first used by Johann Glauber in the 17th cent. and developed commercially by Joshua Ward in England c.1740. It was soon superseded by the lead chamber process, invented by John Roebuck in 1746 and since improved by many others. The contact process was originally developed c.1830 by Peregrine Phillips in England; it was little used until a need for concentrated acid arose, particularly for the manufacture of synthetic organic dyes.

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sulfuric acid

sul·fu·ric ac·id • n. a strong acid made by oxidizing solutions of sulfur dioxide, H2SO4, and used in large quantities as an industrial and laboratory reagent. The concentrated form is an oily, dense, corrosive liquid.

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Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid, H2SO4, is a strong mineral acid, which is a viscous (thick and syrupy), oily liquid that has for years been the most widely used chemical in the world. Normally found in a liquid state, sulfuric acid has a density of 1.84 g/cm3 and is soluble in water. Its melting point is about 50°F (10°C) and its boiling point is approximately 640°F (337°C). In the 2000s, over 165 million tonnes (metric tons; which is equivalent to 364 billion lb [165 billion kg]) of sulfuric acid are produced each year. It is considered the second most produced chemical, besides drinkable water. It is also one of the least expensive acids, which makes it a favorite of industries around the world. It is used in the production of fertilizers and as an industrial catalyst (a substance which speeds up chemical reactions). It is also used in large amounts in oil refining and waste-water processing.

Today, it is generally considered that sulfuric acid was first called oil of vitriol when Islamic alchemist, astronomer, and physicist Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721c. 815) discovered it in the eighth century. European alchemists also called it oil of vitriol, along with spirit of vitriol and vitriol. It was a very popular chemical to alchemists across Asia and Europe from the eighth century to the sixteenth century, and in later centuries by chemists. In the seventeenth century, German-Dutch alchemist and chemist Johann Glauber (16041670) combined sulfur with saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and heated the combination with steam to make sulfuric acid. Around 1735, sulfuric acid was first mass produced by English pharmacist Joshua Ward in glass containers. Then, about 15 years later, English inventor John Roebuck (17181794) used a lead chamber process that made its production more efficient and less costly. The process was improved upon over the next eighty years. In 1831, English merchant Peregrine Phillips designed the contact process for producing sulfuric acid. His patented process is now the standard way of producing sulfuric acid in the 2000s.

One of the major uses of sulfuric acid is in the production of fertilizers. Phosphate rock is treated with sulfuric acid to produce water soluble phosphates, which are essential for plant growth and survival. It is also the acid used in car batteries. Automobile batteries contain lead, lead oxide, and sulfuric acid. These lead storage batteries are used because they can not only provide the electric current needed to start a car, but can be recharged by the cars electrical system while the car is running.

Sulfuric acid is one of the major components of acid rain. Coal contains sulfur as a natural impurity and when coal is burned sulfur dioxide (SO2) and sulfur trioxide (SO3) gases are produced. Sulfur trioxide then reacts with water in the air, creating sulfuric acid. This acid rain can damage buildings, corrode metal, and destroy plant and animal life. Acid rain is an increasing problem not only in major industrialized nations, but also in neighboring countries that are downwind, since pollutants produced by a country do not stay in the air above that country.

One of the major industrial uses of sulfuric acid is as a dehydrating agent (a substance that removes water from other substances). Sulfuric acid is an extremely effective dehydrating agent. Upon contact with living tissue it kills cells by removing water from them.

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Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric acid

Sulfuric acid, H2SO4, is a viscous (thick and syrupy), oily liquid which has for years been the most widely used chemical in the world. Over 100 billion lb (45 billion kg) of sulfuric acid are produced each year. It is also one of the least expensive acids, which makes it a favorite of industries around the world. It is used in the production of fertilizers and as an industrial catalyst (a substance which speeds up chemical reactions ).

One of the major uses of sulfuric acid is in the production of fertilizers. Phosphate rock is treated with sulfuric acid to produce water soluble phosphates, which are essential for plant growth and survival. It is also the acid used in car batteries. Automobile batteries contain lead , lead oxide, and sulfuric acid. These lead storage batteries are used because they can not only provide the electric current needed to start a car, but can be recharged by the car's electrical system while the car is running.

Sulfuric acid is one of the major components of acid rain . Coal contains sulfur as a natural impurity and when coal is burned sulfur dioxide (SO2) and sulfur trioxide (SO3) gases are produced. Sulfur trioxide then reacts with water in the air, creating sulfuric acid. This acid rain can damage buildings, corrode metal , and destroy plant and animal life. Acid rain is an increasing problem not only in major industrialized nations, but also in neighboring countries that are downwind, since pollutants produced by a country do not stay in the air above that country.

One of the major industrial uses of sulfuric acid is as a dehydrating agent (a substance that removes water from other substances). Sulfuric acid is an extremely effective dehydrating agent. Upon contact with living tissue it kills cells by removing water from them.

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Sulfuric Acid

Sulfuric Acid

OVERVIEW

Sulfuric acid (sul-FUR-ik AS-id) is a colorless to dark brown, dense, oily liquid that mixes completely with water. Its color depends on its purity, with compounds of sulfur adding a darker color to the colorless pure product. Sulfuric acid is also available in a form known as fuming sulfuric acid, a solution of sulfur trioxide in sulfuric acid with the chemical formula xH2SO4·ySO3. Sulfuric acid is the most commonly manufactured chemical in the world. In 2004, the chemical industry produced 37,515,000 metric tons (41,266,000 short tons), of which more than half was used in the manufacture of fertilizers.

KEY FACTS

OTHER NAMES:

Hydrogen sulfate; oil of vitriol

FORMULA:

H2SO4

ELEMENTS:

Hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen

COMPOUND TYPE:

Acid (inorganic)

STATE:

Liquid

MOLECULAR WEIGHT:

98.08 g/mol

MELTING POINT:

10.31°C (50.56°F)

BOILING POINT:

337°C (639°F)

SOLUBILITY:

Completely miscible with water

Some historians credit the discovery of sulfuric acid to the Islamic scientist Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864-930 ce), while others claim the first mention of the compound to have been by the Islamic writer Geber (probably born about 1270). In any case, European scientists apparently did not discover sulfuric acid on their own until the sixteenth century, when the Belgian scientist Johann Baptista van Helmont (1579–1644) described its preparation by adding water to the gas formed when sulfur was burned. The discovery of sulfuric acid proved to be an important development in the early history of modern chemistry. For the first time, it gave chemists an acid far stronger than the vinegar with which they previously had to work in analyzing mixtures and making new chemical compounds.

HOW IT IS MADE

The first commercially successful method for making sulfuric acid was developed in 1746 by English physician, chemist, and inventor John Roebuck (1718–1794). Roebuck's method is called the lead chamber process because the acid is made in large containers lined with lead. The lead chamber process involves three primary steps: the combustion of sulfur to produce sulfur dioxide; the conversion of sulfur dioxide to sulfur trioxide; and the reaction of sulfur trioxide with water to make sulfuric acid:

S + O2 → SO2

2SO2 + O2 → SO3

SO3 + H2O → H2SO4

Although the process looks fairly simple, the reactions are actually somewhat complex because of other compounds needed to make the reactions occur.

The second method for making sulfuric acid is known as the contact process. It was invented about 1830 by an English vinegar merchant from Bristol, Peregrine Phillips. The chemical reactions involved in Phillips' process are identical to those in the lead chamber process, but they are carried out over a catalyst of finely divided platinum metal. Phillips found that the yield obtained (the amount of raw material converted to useful product) was much higher than with the lead chamber process.

As it happens, little attention was paid to Phillips' discovery because there was not much demand for sulfuric acid at the time. It was not until the invention of synthetic dyes a few decades later that the compound became commercially important. But even then, the lead chamber process was the preferred method for making sulfuric acid. Over time, improvements were made in the contact process, and it gradually became more and more popular. Today, nearly all of the sulfuric acid produced is manufactured by some modification of Peregrine Phillips' method.

COMMON USES AND POTENTIAL HAZARDS

The most important single use of sulfuric acid is for the production of phosphoric acid (H3PO4), which in turn is used to make fertilizers. About 70 percent of all the sulfuric acid used in the United States goes to this application. Some other uses of sulfuric acid include:

  • As the electrolyte in lead storage batteries (the liquid through which charged particles flow);
  • For the processing of gasoline and other petrochemicals, as a way of removing impurities present in the products;
  • As a cleaning agent for metal surfaces, especially prior to their being plated with a second metal;
  • In the manufacture of explosives, dyes, glues, pigments, rayon, and films;
  • As a catalyst in a variety of industrial chemical and research chemical reactions; and
  • In the processing of ores in preparation for the extraction of metals.

Interesting Facts

  • Sulfuric acid's common name is oil of vitriol. That name comes from the fact that it was once produced from either iron(II) sulfate, known as "green vitriol," or from copper(II) sulfate, known as "blue vitriol."
  • The conversion of sulfur dioxide to sulfur trioxide in the manufacture of sulfuric acid does not occur very readily. That step controls the efficiency with which the acid can be made. Phillips' great breakthrough was to find a catalyst that made that reaction take place more easily. Later, researchers found an even more efficient catalyst, vanadium pentoxide (V2O5). Today, vanadium pentoxide is still the most popular catalyst in the production of sulfuric acid.

Words to Know

CATALYST
A material that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without undergoing any change in its own chemical structure.
MISCIBLE
Able to be mixed; especially applies to the mixing of one liquid with another.

Sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive material that causes severe damage to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. If spilled on the skin or eyes, it can cause inflammation, burns, and blistering, and cause serious damage to one's vision. If swallowed, it causes severe burns of the gastrointestinal tract and irreversible damage to tissue and organs. Any accident in which sulfuric acid is inhaled, swallowed, or spilled on the body requires immediate medical attention.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

"Chemical of the Week: Sulfuric Acid." Science is Fun. http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/chemweek/Sulf&top/Sulf&Top.html (accessed on November 15, 2005).

"Chronic Toxicity Summary: Sulfuric Acid." Office of Environmental Health Hazard, State of California. http://www.oehha.org/air/chronic_rels/pdf/sulfuric.pdf (accessed on November 15, 2005).

"Sulfuric Acid." In World of Scientific Discovery. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.

"Sulfuric Acid." National Safety Council. http://www.nsc.org/library/chemical/sulfuric.htm (accessed on November 15, 2005).

"Sulfuric Acid: Production and Uses." Aus-e-tute. http://www.ausetute.com.au/sulfacid.html (accessed on November 15, 2005).

See AlsoPhosphoric Acid; Sulfur Dioxide

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