In the majority of refrigerating and ice machines ammonia gas is the substance used for producing the refrigeration, although there are other machines in which other material is employed, one of these being anhydrous sulphurous acid, which is also a gas. Ammonia of itself is a colorless gas, but little more than one half as heavy as air. In its composition ammonia consists of two gases, nitrogen and hydrogen, in the proportion by weight of one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen. The gas hydrogen is one of the constituents of water and is highly inflammable in the presence of air or oxygen, while the other component of ammonia, nitrogen, forms the bulk or about four-fifths of the atmosphere. Nitrogen by itself is an inert gas, colorless and uninflammable. Ammonia, although composed of more than three-fourths its weight of hydrogen, is not inflammable in air, on account of its combination with the nitrogen. This combination, it will be understood, is not a simple mixture, but the two gases are chemically combined, forming a new substance which has characteristics and properties entirely different from either of the gases entering into its composition when taken alone or when simply mixed together without chemical combustion.
Ammonia cannot be produced by the direct combination of these elements, but it has been found that it is sometimes made or produced in a very extraordinary manner, which goes to show that there is yet considerable to be learned in regard to the chemistry of ammonia. Animal or vegetable substances when putrefying or suffering destructive distillation almost invariably give rise to an abundant production of this substance.
The common method for the manufacture of ammonia is to produce it from the salt known as sal-ammoniac. Sal-ammoniac as a crystal is obtained in various ways, principally from the ammoniacal liquor of gas works, also from the condensed products of the distillation of bones and other animal refuse in the preparation of animal charcoal, and which is of a highly alkaline nature. This liquid is then treated with a slight excess of muriatic acid to neutralize the free alkali, and at the same time the carbonates and sulphides are decomposed with the evolution of carbonic acid and sulphureted hydrogen. All animal matter, the meat, bones, etc., contain considerable carbon, while the nitrogen from which the ammonia is produced forms a smaller portion of the substance. The object is then to get rid of the carbon and sulphur, leaving the nitrogen to combine, through chemical affinity, with a portion of the hydrogen of the water, the oxygen which is set free going to form the carbonic acid by combining with the carbon.
The liquor after being neutralized is evaporated to dryness, leaving a crystallized salt containing a portion of tarry matter.
The salt is then purified by sublimation, that is, it is heated in a closed iron vessel until it is transformed into a gas which separates and leaves, in a carbonized state, all foreign substance. After this gas is cooled, it condenses and again forms crystals which are in a much purer condition. If necessary to further purify it, it is again sublimed. The iron vessels in which the sublimation takes place are lined with clay and covered with lead. The clay lining and lead covering are necessary, for if the gas evolved during the process of sublimation came in contact with the iron surface, the gas would be contaminated and the iron corroded. Sublimed sal-ammoniac has a fibrous texture and is tough and difficult to powder. It has a sharp, salty taste and is soluble in two and a half parts of cold and in a much smaller quantity of hot water. During the process of sublimation the ammonia is not decomposed. But there are several ways in which the gas may be decomposed, and a certain portion of it is decomposed in the ordinary use of it in refrigerating machines. If electric sparks are passed through the gas, it suffers decomposition, the nitrogen and hydrogen then being in the condition of a simple mixture.
When decomposed in this manner, the volume of the gas is doubled and the proportion is found to be three measures of hydrogen to one of nitrogen, while the weight of the two constituents is in the proportion of three parts hydrogen to fourteen of nitrogen.
The ammonia gas may also be decomposed by passing through a red hot tube, and the presence of heated iron causes a slight degree of decomposition. This sal-ammoniac is powdered and mixed with moist slaked lime and then gently heated in a flask, when a large quantity of gaseous ammonia is disengaged. The gas must be collected over mercury or by displacement. The gas thus produced has a strong, pungent odor, as can easily be determined by any one working around the ammonia ice or refrigerating machines, for as our friend, Otto Luhr, says, "It is the worst stuff I ever smelled in my life." The gas is highly alkaline and combines readily with acids, completely neutralizing them, and the aqua ammonia is one of the best substances to put on a place burned by sulphuric acid, as has been learned by those working with that substance, for although aqua ammonia of full strength is highly corrosive and of itself will blister the flesh, yet when used to neutralize the effect of a burn from sulphuric acid its great affinity for the acid prevents it from injuring the skin under such conditions.
The distilled gas, such as has just been described, is the anhydrous ammonia used in the compressor system of refrigeration, while it is the aqua ammonia that is used in the absorption system of refrigeration. Aqua ammonia or liquor ammonia is formed by dissolving the ammonia gas in water. One volume of water will dissolve seven hundred times its bulk of this gas, and is then known as aqua ammonia, in contradistinction to anhydrous ammonia, the latter designating term meaning without water, while the term aqua is the Latin word for water.
Anhydrous ammonia, the gas, may be reduced to the liquid form at ordinary temperatures when submitted to a pressure of about 95 pounds. During the process of liquefaction the ammonia gives up a large amount of heat, which if absorbed or radiated while the ammonia is in the liquid condition, the gas when allowed to expand will absorb from its surroundings an amount of heat equal to that radiated, producing a very great lowering of temperature. It is this principle that is utilized in refrigeration and ice making. In the absorption system, where aqua ammonia is used, the liquor is contained in a retort to which heat is applied by means of a steam coil, and a great part of the gas which was held in solution by the water is expelled, and carries with it a small amount of water or vapor. This passes into a separator in the top of a condenser, from which the water returns again to the retort, the ammonia gas, under considerable pressure, passing into the coolers. These are large receptacles in which the gas is permitted to expand. By such expansion heat is absorbed and the temperature of the surroundings is lowered. From the coolers the gas returns to the absorber, from which it is pumped, in liquid form, into the retort, to be again heated, the gas expelled and the process repeated.
As the gas passes through the different processes, being heated under pressure, cooled, expanded again, more or less decomposition takes place, presumably from a combination of a small portion of the nitrogen with vegetable, animal, or mineral matter that finds its way into the system. Such decomposition, with the loss of nitrogen, leaves a small portion of free hydrogen, which is the gas that can be drawn from the top of the absorber, ignited and burned. The presence of hydrogen gas in the absorber is not necessarily detrimental to the effectiveness of the system, but as hydrogen does not possess the qualities of absorbing heat in the same way and to the same extent as ammonia, the presence of hydrogen makes the operation of the apparatus somewhat less efficient. - Stationary Engineer.
The refrigerating apparatus illustrated and described in the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN SUPPLEMENT of June 25, No. 812, is substantially that patented by Messrs. Erny, Subers & Hoos, of Philadelphia. The illustration was copied from their patents of November and February last.