Nitric Acid vs. Nitrous Acid

What's the Difference?

Nitric acid (HNO3) and nitrous acid (HNO2) are both acids that contain nitrogen and oxygen. However, they differ in terms of their chemical composition and properties. Nitric acid is a strong acid, while nitrous acid is a weak acid. Nitric acid is a highly corrosive and oxidizing agent, commonly used in industries for the production of fertilizers, explosives, and dyes. On the other hand, nitrous acid is a relatively unstable compound that is used as a reagent in various chemical reactions. Additionally, nitric acid is a stronger acid than nitrous acid due to the presence of an additional oxygen atom, which increases its acidity. Overall, while both acids have their own unique applications, nitric acid is more widely used and has a stronger acidic nature compared to nitrous acid.


AttributeNitric AcidNitrous Acid
Chemical FormulaHNO3HNO2
Molecular Weight63.01 g/mol47.01 g/mol
AcidityStrong AcidWeak Acid
AppearanceColorless liquidColorless gas
Boiling Point83 °C (181 °F)-6.2 °C (20.8 °F)
UsesProduction of fertilizers, explosives, and dyesUsed as a reagent in chemical synthesis

Further Detail


Nitric acid (HNO3) and nitrous acid (HNO2) are both important compounds in chemistry, particularly in the field of inorganic chemistry. While they share some similarities, they also have distinct attributes that set them apart. In this article, we will explore and compare the properties, uses, and reactions of nitric acid and nitrous acid.


Nitric acid is a strong acid that is commonly found as a colorless liquid. It has a pungent odor and is highly corrosive. Nitric acid is soluble in water and forms a strong acidic solution. It is a powerful oxidizing agent and can react with various substances, including metals, organic compounds, and even some non-metals.

Nitrous acid, on the other hand, is a weak acid that exists as a pale blue liquid or a colorless gas. It has a characteristic odor and is less corrosive compared to nitric acid. Nitrous acid is also soluble in water, but its acidic properties are much milder compared to nitric acid. It is a weaker oxidizing agent and has limited reactivity with certain substances.


Nitric acid has numerous industrial applications. It is commonly used in the production of fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate, which is a vital component in agricultural practices. Nitric acid is also utilized in the manufacturing of explosives, dyes, and various organic compounds. Additionally, it plays a crucial role in the purification of metals and is used in the etching and engraving of metals and glass.

Nitrous acid, on the other hand, has more limited applications. It is primarily used in the synthesis of organic compounds, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. Nitrous acid is also employed as a reagent in certain chemical reactions, such as the diazotization of aromatic amines. However, due to its instability and relatively weak acidic nature, its uses are not as extensive as those of nitric acid.


Nitric acid is a highly reactive compound and participates in various chemical reactions. It can act as both an acid and an oxidizing agent. When reacting with metals, nitric acid undergoes a redox reaction, oxidizing the metal and producing nitrogen oxides. For example, when nitric acid reacts with copper, it forms copper(II) nitrate and nitrogen dioxide gas:

3Cu + 8HNO3 → 3Cu(NO3)2 + 2NO2 + 4H2O

Nitrous acid, on the other hand, is less reactive and primarily participates in substitution reactions. It can undergo a reaction known as diazotization, where it reacts with aromatic amines to form diazonium salts. This reaction is widely used in the synthesis of azo dyes, which are extensively used in the textile industry. The diazotization reaction of nitrous acid is as follows:

ArNH2 + HNO2 → ArN2+ + 2H2O


Nitric acid is commonly prepared by the oxidation of ammonia. In the Ostwald process, ammonia is first oxidized to nitric oxide (NO), which is then further oxidized to nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The nitrogen dioxide is then dissolved in water to form nitric acid:

4NH3 + 5O2 → 4NO + 6H2O

2NO + O2 → 2NO2

3NO2 + H2O → 2HNO3 + NO

Nitrous acid, on the other hand, is typically prepared by the reaction of sodium nitrite (NaNO2) with a strong acid, such as hydrochloric acid (HCl). The reaction proceeds as follows:

NaNO2 + HCl → HNO2 + NaCl

Safety Considerations

Due to its strong corrosive nature, nitric acid poses significant safety hazards. It can cause severe burns and is harmful if inhaled or ingested. Proper protective equipment, such as gloves and goggles, should be worn when handling nitric acid. Additionally, it should be stored in a well-ventilated area away from flammable substances.

Nitrous acid, although less corrosive, is also hazardous. It is toxic and can cause irritation to the respiratory system and eyes. Similar to nitric acid, appropriate safety precautions should be taken when working with nitrous acid, including the use of protective equipment and proper ventilation.


In conclusion, nitric acid and nitrous acid are both important compounds in chemistry, but they differ in terms of their properties, uses, reactions, and safety considerations. Nitric acid is a strong acid with powerful oxidizing properties, widely used in various industries, while nitrous acid is a weaker acid primarily employed in organic synthesis. Understanding the distinctions between these two compounds is crucial for their safe handling and effective utilization in different chemical processes.

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