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Published: May 2011
World nitric acid consumption peaked in the late 1980s before declining significantly through 1994. That decline was related primarily to economic turmoil in the Eastern bloc countries. Since then, the market has exhibited an upward trend. The largest market for nitric acid consumption is the production of ammonium nitrate (AN) and calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN). In 2010, this accounted for 80% of total world consumption of nitric acid. The major end use of AN fertilizer is in decline as a result of concerns about nitrate groundwater contamination and increased usage of solid urea, which has a higher nitrogen content (46%) than AN (34%), is less costly, and is less dangerous. Consumption of AN in explosives and blasting agent applications continues to grow, but is much more regulated since September 11, 2001.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of nitric acid:
Most nitric acid is consumed captively and the merchant portion of the market accounts for less than 10% of the total. International trade is minor and has little impact on the nitric acid balance. Although there has been a relatively steady increase in capacity, the world's average operating rate increased to 76% in 2010, indicating a much stronger market balance than previously.
It is estimated that AN (and CAN) production accounted for 80% of the world nitric acid market in 2010. The AN market is nearly three-quarters fertilizer and one-quarter industrial applications. However, other nitric acid–based products such as nitrophosphates and potassium nitrates are also used in fertilizer applications, accounting for an additional 2.5% of total nitric acid consumption. The remaining 17.5% of nitric acid is consumed in industrial (nonfertilizer) applications. The combined production of organic compounds, such as nitrobenzene, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), adipic acid, and nitrochlorobenzenes accounted for nearly 10% of total world nitric acid consumption in 2010.
Western Europe, China, the former USSR, Central Europe and the United States dominate the market statistics. Together, these five regions accounted for 81.4% of capacity, 82.0% of production, and 81.9% of consumption in 2010. Since 1994, the largest increases in capacity, production and consumption have occurred in China.
One environmental problem affecting the consumption of nitric acid concerns the use of ammonium nitrate fertilizers. The loss of nitrogen to groundwater because of nitrification and leaching has become a significant problem and has negatively impacted the use of nitrogen fertilizers, particularly in Western Europe. A European Community directive has set a target of reducing nitrate levels in groundwater to a maximum of 50 milligrams per liter. There is also concern about nitrate levels in groundwater in the United States.