Potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter or saltpetre or Indian saltpeter, is an important chemical compound in both industry and chemistry. Known for centuries for its role in early pyrotechnics, the nitrate ion makes KNO3 a widely used oxidiser with a variety of uses inside and outside pyrotechnics.
Potassium nitrate is a good source of both potassium and nitrate ions.
When heated to to temperatures between 550 and 790 °C, under an oxygen atmosphere, it loses oxygen and converts into potassium nitrite:
- 2 KNO3 → 2 KNO2 + O2
- 2KNO3 + 2HCl + H2O → 2KCl + HNO3 + NO2 + H2O
By adding an excess of HCl, this reaction can be used to generate "poor man's aqua regia".
A substantial amount of energetic materials are based on the nitrate ion, and it is arguably the most important ion when it comes to explosives, such as black powder.
- 10 KNO3 + 3 S + 8 C → 2 K2CO3 + 3 K2SO4 + 6 CO2 + 5 N2
- KNO3 + 4C -> KCN + 3CO
If you attempt to try this reaction, AVOID ADDING ACID TO THE RESULTED SLAG AS IT WILL GIVE OFF HYDROGEN CYANIDE GAS WHICH CAN BE DEADLY (see the Sciencemadness thread below).
A mixture of sucrose (most sugars work) and potassium nitrate known as rock candy can be ignited, producing pink flames and large amounts of white smoke, useful for improvised smoke bombs. The solid end product of this reaction is potassium carbonate, plus some of the leftover reactants.
Potassium nitrate is white solid with a melting point of 334°C. Its solubility curve makes recrystallization easy, being only somewhat soluble in freezing water (13.3g/100ml at 0°C), but very soluble in boiling water (246g/100ml at 100°C). It is not hygroscopic, absorbing about 0.03% water in 80% relative humidity over a period of 50 days. It is soluble in glycerol and ammonia, but only slightly soluble in ethanol.
In many American hardware stores, potassium nitrate is sold in a reasonably pure form as a stump remover, which can be purified by recrystallization. Care must be taken if it is being bought this way, as some stump removers mostly consist of other agents, such as sodium metabisulfite, which can be a rude awakening to one treating it as potassium nitrate. It can also be bought as fertilizer, either pure or mixed with traces of other substances.
- KOH + HNO3 → KNO3 + H2O
- KOH + NH4NO3 → KNO3 + NH3 + H2O
It can also be made by a double displacement reaction between ammonium nitrate and potassium sulfate or potassium chloride, and then recrystallizing the KNO3 out at low temperatures. This reaction can also be done using potassium sulfate and sodium nitrate, but instead of crystallizing potassium nitrate, sodium sulfate is crystallized out along with some of the potassium nitrate at low temperatures, leaving most of the desired product in solution.
A reaction between a small amount of ice or water, potassium hydroxide, and ammonium nitrate easily proceeds to completion very exothermically, driving ammonia gas out of the mixture and producing potassium nitrate as an end product. This can also be done with potassium carbonate, but the carbonate route requires heating the two in solution.
The nitrate ion itself is very difficult to make from other OTC chemicals, and despite the increasing difficulty in obtaining this salt, buying it in pure or impure from is the only real viable option.
- Making nitric acid
- Potassium nitrite synthesis
- Nitrocellulose synthesis
- Black powder
- Candy rocket
- Various flash powders
- Dissolving gold when mixed with concentrated HCl (poor man's aqua regia)
- Electrolyte in a salt bridge
- Potassium cyanide sythesis
Potassium nitrate is virtually non-toxic, and is even approved for use in food as a preservative (E252).
While generally quite stable, it is an oxidizing agent, so mixtures with reducing agents like sucrose, red phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium or aluminium should not be ground or pressed together, and the risk of spontaneous ignition is ever present. Sulfur is especially dangerous, as acidic traces can greatly increase the sensitivity of energetic mixtures. As it is not hygroscopic, like its sodium cousin, it poses a greater fire hazard.
Potassium nitrate should be stored in closed bottles, away from any flammable materials as well as organic and acidic vapors. It is not hygroscopic, so there's no need to seal it.
Potassium nitrate is a good fertilizer, and unless it's contaminated with toxins or heavy metals, it can be disposed pretty much anywhere.
Tdep - experience working with and setting fire to said chemical.