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Urea, also called carbamide, is carbonic acid diamide. Its formula is H2NCONH2. Urea has important uses as fertilizer and feeds supplement, as well as raw material for making plastic and medicine. It is a colorless, crystalline substance that melts at 132.7 °C (271 °F) and decomposes before boiling.
Urea is the nitrogenous end product of the metabolic breakdown of proteins in all mammals and some fish. This substance is present not only in the urine of all mammals but also in their blood, bile, milk, and sweat. During the breakdown of proteins, amino groups (NH2) are removed from amino acids that make up part of proteins. These amino groups are converted to ammonia (NH3), which is toxic to the body and therefore must be converted to urea by the liver. Urea then goes to the kidneys and is finally excreted through urine.
History of urea fertilizer
Urea was first isolated from urine in 1773 by the French chemist Hilaire-Marin Roel. Its preparation by the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler from ammonium cyanate in 1828 was the first generally accepted laboratory synthesis of a natural organic compound from minerals. Urea is currently commercially prepared in large quantities from liquid ammonia and liquid carbon dioxide. The two substances combine under high pressures and temperatures to form ammonium carbamate, which then decomposes at much lower pressures to produce urea and water.
Since the amount of nitrogen in urea fertilizer is high and it is easily converted into ammonia in the soil, it is one of the most concentrated nitrogenous fertilizers. And it is an inexpensive compound that is used in mixed fertilizers as well as alone in the soil or sprayed on foliage. With formaldehyde, methylene urea fertilizers release nitrogen slowly, continuously, and uniformly. Although urea nitrogen is non-protein, it can be used by ruminant animals (cattle, sheep) and a significant part of the protein required by these animals can be supplied in this way. The use of urea to make urea-formaldehyde resin is second in importance after its use as a fertilizer. Large amounts of urea are also used for the synthesis of barbiturates.
In the industry, 100 million tons of urea are synthesized annually. So what is all this used for?
Well, 90% goes to fertilizers and is an essential source of nitrogen to grow crops as fast as possible. Urea fertilizer is popular because it has the highest percentage of nitrogen of any solid fertilizer, which means less weight is required and therefore it is cheaper to transport. Urea usually breaks down into ammonia, which can be absorbed by plants. However, ammonia tends to volatilize and reduce the amount of nitrogen in the soil. To avoid this, especially during summer, farmers spread urea in the fields just before the rains.
Urea can be reacted with formaldehyde or nitric acid to create a range of other substances that can be used to make resins, plastics, and explosives. However, it also has a wide range of uses, including emollients in cosmetic creams and coloring pretzels.
Few molecules have such an important place in the history of chemistry. The story of urea is nearly 300 years old, from its rather smelly origins to fertilizing the world’s crops. Its synthesis may have been a lucky accident, but it laid the foundations of modern organic chemistry.
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