Sodium nitrate is the chemical compound with the formula NaNO
3. This alkali metal nitrate salt is also known as Chile saltpeter (large deposits of which were historically mined in Chile) to distinguish it from ordinary saltpeter, potassium nitrate. The mineral form is also known as nitratine, nitratite or soda niter.
3D model (JSmol)
|E number||E251 (preservatives)|
CompTox Dashboard (EPA)
|Molar mass||84.9947 g/mol|
|Appearance||White powder or colorless crystals|
|Density||2.257 g/cm3, solid|
|Melting point||308 °C (586 °F; 581 K)|
|Boiling point||380 °C (716 °F; 653 K) decomposes|
|73 g/100 mL (0 °C) |
91.2 g/100 mL (25 °C)
180 g/100 mL (100 °C)
|Solubility||very soluble in ammonia, hydrazine |
soluble in alcohol
slightly soluble in pyridine
insoluble in acetone
Refractive index (nD)
|1.587 (trigonal) |
|Viscosity||2.85 cP (317 °C)|
|trigonal and rhombohedral|
Heat capacity (C)
|93.05 J/(mol K)|
|116 J/(mol K)|
Std enthalpy of
Gibbs free energy (ΔfG˚)
|Main hazards||Harmful (Xn)|
|Safety data sheet||ICSC 0185|
|NFPA 704 (fire diamond)|
|Lethal dose or concentration (LD, LC):|
LD50 (median dose)
Except where otherwise noted, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C [77 °F], 100 kPa).
Sodium nitrate is a white solid very soluble in water. It is a readily available source of the nitrate anion (NO3−), which is useful in several reactions carried out on industrial scales for the production of fertilizers, pyrotechnics and smoke bombs, glass and pottery enamels, food preservatives (esp. meats), and solid rocket propellant. It has been mined extensively for these purposes.
The first shipment of Peruvian saltpeter to Europe arrived in England in 1820 or 1825, right after that country's independence from Spain, but did not find any buyers and was dumped at sea in order to avoid customs toll. With time, however, the mining of South American saltpeter became a profitable business (in 1859, England alone consumed 47,000 metric tons). Chile fought the War of the Pacific (1879-1884) against the allies Peru and Bolivia and took over their richest deposits of saltpeter. In 1919, Ralph Walter Graystone Wyckoff determined its crystal structure using X-ray crystallography.
The largest accumulations of naturally occurring sodium nitrate are found in Chile and Peru, where nitrate salts are bound within mineral deposits called caliche ore. Nitrates accumulate on land through marine-fog precipitation and sea-spray oxidation/desiccation followed by gravitational settling of airborne NaNO3, KNO3, NaCl, Na2SO4, and I, in the hot-dry desert atmosphere. El Niño/La Niña extreme aridity/torrential rain cycles favor nitrates accumulation through both aridity and water solution/remobilization/transportation onto slopes and into basins; capillary solution movement forms layers of nitrates; pure nitrate forms rare veins. For more than a century, the world supply of the compound was mined almost exclusively from the Atacama desert in northern Chile until, at the turn of the 20th century, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a process for producing ammonia from the atmosphere on an industrial scale (see Haber process). With the onset of World War I, Germany began converting ammonia from this process into a synthetic Chilean saltpeter, which was as practical as the natural compound in production of gunpowder and other munitions. By the 1940s, this conversion process resulted in a dramatic decline in demand for sodium nitrate procured from natural sources.
Chile still has the largest reserves of caliche,with active mines in such locations as Pedro de Valdivia, María Elena and Pampa Blanca, and there it used to be called white gold. Sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, sodium sulfate and iodine are all obtained by the processing of caliche. The former Chilean saltpeter mining communities of Humberstone and Santa Laura were declared Unesco World Heritage sites in 2005.
- 2 HNO3 + Na2CO3 → 2 NaNO3 + H2O + CO2
- HNO3 + NaHCO3 → NaNO3 + H2O + CO2
or also by neutralizing it with sodium hydroxide (however, this reaction is very exothermic):
- HNO3 + NaOH → NaNO3 + H2O
- NH4NO3 + NaOH → NaNO3 + NH4OH
- NH4NO3 + NaHCO3 → NaNO3 + NH4HCO3
- 2NH4NO3 + Na2CO3 → 2NaNO3 + (NH4)2CO3
Sodium nitrate can be combined with sulfuric acid and nitric acid distilled off. At lower pressure the lower temperature needed results in less decomposition. The theoretical 2 moles of nitric acid per 1 mole of sulfuric acid results in a very high end temperature, much decomposition and a solid neutral sulfate that is difficult to remove. When this reaction was important industrially, it was common practice to operate with sulfuric acid in excess to end on a mostly bisulfate product poured molten out of the retort.
Sodium nitrate is used together with potassium nitrate and calcium nitrate for heat storage and, more recently, for heat transfer in solar power plants. A mixture of sodium nitrate, calcium nitrate and potassium nitrate is used as energy-storage material in prototype plants, such as Andasol Solar Power Station and the Archimedes project.
It is also used in the wastewater industry for facultative microorganism respiration. Nitrosomonas, a genus of microorganisms, consumes nitrate in preference to oxygen, enabling it to grow more rapidly in the wastewater to be treated.
Sodium nitrate is also sometimes used by marine aquarists who utilize carbon-dosing techniques. It is used to increase nitrate levels in the water and promote bacterial growth.
Sodium nitrate is also a food additive used as a preservative and color fixative in cured meats and poultry; it is listed under its INS number 251 or E number E251. It is approved for use in the EU, USA and Australia and New Zealand. Sodium nitrate should not be confused with sodium nitrite, which is also a common food additive and preservative used, for example, in deli meats.
Studies have shown a link between increased levels of nitrates and increased deaths from certain diseases including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes mellitus, stomach cancer, and Parkinson's disease: possibly through the damaging effect of nitrosamines on DNA, however, little is done to control for other possible causes in the epidemiological results. Nitrosamines, formed in cured meats containing sodium nitrate and nitrite, have been linked to gastric cancer and oesophageal cancer. Sodium nitrate and nitrite are associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
One of the reasons that processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer is its content of nitrate. A small amount of the nitrate added to meat as a preservative breaks down into nitrite, in addition to any nitrite that may also be added. The nitrite then reacts with protein-rich foods (such as meat) to produce carcinogenic NOCs (nitroso compounds). NOCs can be formed either when meat is cured or in the body as meat is digested.
- Zumdahl, Steven S. (2009). Chemical Principles 6th Ed. Houghton Mifflin Company. p. A23. ISBN 978-0-618-94690-7.
- "The Nitrate Towns of Chile". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
- Mutic, Anja (26 October 2012). "The ghost towns of northern Chile". Washington Post. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
- S. H. Baekeland "Några sidor af den kemiska industrien" (1914) Svensk Kemisk Tidskrift, p. 140.
- Friedrich Georg Wieck, Uppfinningarnas bok (1873, Swedish translation of Buch der Erfindungen), vol. 4, p. 473.
- Stephen R. Bown, A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World, Macmillan, 2005, ISBN 0-312-32913-X, p. 157.
- Arias, Jaime (24 Jul 2003). On the Origin of Saltpeter, Northern Chile Coast. International Union for Quaternary Research. Retrieved 19 Aug 2018.
- Albert A. Robbins "Chemical freezing package" U.S. Patent 2,898,744, Issue date: August 1959.
- UK Food Standards Agency: "Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers". Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- US Food and Drug Administration: "Listing of Food Additives Status Part II". Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code"Standard 1.2.4 - Labelling of ingredients". Retrieved 2011-10-27.
- De La Monte, SM; Neusner, A; Chu, J; Lawton, M (2009). "Epidemilogical trends strongly suggest exposures as etiologic agents in the pathogenesis of sporadic Alzheimer's disease, diabetes mellitus, and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis". Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 17 (3): 519–29. doi:10.3233/JAD-2009-1070. PMC 4551511. PMID 19363256.
- Jakszyn, Paula; Gonzalez, Carlos-Alberto (21 Jul 2006). "Nitrosamine and related food intake and gastric and oesophageal cancer risk: a systematic review of the epidemiological evidence". World Journal of Gastroenterology. 12 (27): 4296–4303. doi:10.3748/wjg.v12.i27.4296. PMC 4087738. PMID 16865769.
- Cross, AJ; Ferrucci, LM; Risch, A; Graubard, BI; Ward, MH; Park, Y; Hollenbeck, AR; Schatzkin, A; Sinha, R (2010). "A large prospective study of meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk: An investigation of potential mechanisms underlying this association". Cancer Research. 70 (6): 2406–14. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-3929. PMC 2840051. PMID 20215514.
- "The Associations between Food, Nutrition and Physical Activity and the Risk of Colorectal Cancer", World Cancer Research Fund (2010)
- ATSDR – Case Studies in Environmental Medicine – Nitrate/Nitrite Toxicity U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (public domain)
- FAO/WHO report
- Calculators: surface tensions, and densities, molarities and molalities of aqueous sodium nitrate