Alkyl nitrites information and safety warnings

Common questions about amyl, isobutyl
and other alkyl nitrites answered.

What are nitrites?

Nitrites, in general, are salts of nitrous acid. The nitrite ion (NO2) is an anion (an ion with a negative charge) and is symmetric with equal N-O bond lengths and an O-N-O angle of approximately 120 degrees. Being an ambidentate ligand (as opposed to polydentate one), the nitrite ion can bind to a central atom in two places but not both. It is known to bond to metal centers in at least five different ways.

What is the difference between nitrite and nitrate?

Both nitrite and nitrate compounds are made of a nitrogen atom joined to atoms of oxygen. However, nitrite contains two atoms of oxygen (NO2), while nitrate contains three (NO3). Just like nitrites, nitrates also are anions and so they tend to associate cations (positively-charged ions) in order to achieve balance.

Nitrates easily convert into nitrites in nature — and vice versa. For example, microorganisms can convert nitrate to nitrite; this reaction occurs in the environment just as well as within the digestive tract of humans and animals.

What are alkyl nitrites?

Alkyl nitrite is a compound with a molecular structure R-ONO. Formally alkyl esters of nitrous acid, alkyl nitrites are volatile liquids with a fruity odor. Methyl nitrite and ethyl nitrite are the simplest of alkyl nitrites, while amyl and isobutyl nitrite are probably the two best known of them all.

What are the common uses of alkyl nitrites?

Alkyl nitrites were discovered in the nineteenth century and were initially used as medical vasodilators (i.e., they expand blood vessels, thus resulting in lowering of the blood pressure). Currently, the compounds are primarily used in various chemical production and separation processes.

What are the specific uses of amyl nitrate and isobutyl nitrate?

Both amyl and isobutyl nitrite have a variety of applications; they are used to clean sensitive metallic parts of industrial machinery or printed circuits, for example. Because of their ability to neutralize odors, they are added to air-fresheners and even perfumes. In the household, nitrite concentrates can be used to remove stains from a range of fabrics or to condition wood or leather.

Are there any safety issues I need to be aware of?

Yes. Amyl, isobutyl and other alkyl nitrites are volatile chemicals that will ignite or may even explode on contact with heat, spark or flame. It is also imperative to avoid prolonged inhalation of contents; doing so may cause headache, weakness, faintness or confusion, as well as a drop in blood pressure. Alkyl nitrites are eye and skin irritants and medical attention should be sought following accidental contact. Medical assistance must be sought immediately if swallowed.

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