Published June 2014
The largest market for nitric acid is the production of ammonium nitrate (AN) and calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN). In 2013, this accounted for 80% of the total world consumption of nitric acid. The major end use for AN fertilizer is in decline because 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 has been much more regulated since September 11, 2001. Most nitric acid is consumed captively and the merchant portion of the market accounts for less than 10% of the total.
In 2013, fertilizers accounted for almost 80% of total nitric acid consumption, with ammonium nitrate (including CAN) accounting for more than 96% of that. Nonfertilizer applications accounted for 17.2%, with production of nitrobenzene (3.6%), TDI (2.8%), adipic acid (2.7%), and nitrochlorobenzenes (1.8%) accounting for the majority.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of nitric acid:
Europe (Western, Central and Eastern), China and North America dominate the market statistics. Together, these regions accounted for about 82% of capacity, 84% of production, and 84% of consumption in 2013. Since 1994, the largest increases in capacity, production and consumption have occurred in China. Apparent world consumption increased annually by about 2% between 2008 and 2013, and is projected to grow at 2.3% annually during 2013–2018.
A number of chemical and physical characteristics make nitrate fertilizers different from other nitrogen-containing fertilizers. First, they may decompose when heated and release oxygen. This may cause fires to burn more intensely. Secondly, when mixed with certain other products, the blend may be subject to self-sustaining decomposition. Third, nitrate fertilizers could be misused in the preparation of explosives in politically motivated acts of violence. This has led most governments to classify a number of fertilizers as Security Sensitive Ammonium Nitrate (SSAN), requiring strict controls on their storage, transport and use. Finally, nitrate fertilizers do not store as well as other fertilizers. They are hygroscopic (absorb moisture), causing caking problems and making them difficult to handle and use. This usually does not influence their safety. Straight ammonium nitrate is considered the highest-risk product.