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What Are the Different Uses of Urea?

The most common use of urea is in fertilizer.
The nitrogen in urea makes it a good option for livestock feeding.
Hair conditioning products often contain urea.
Teeth-whitening products sometimes contain urea.
Some manufacturers add urea to cigarettes as a flavor enhancer.
Urea formaldehyde resin is commonly used as an adhesive in the fiberboard industry.
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  • Originally Written By: Klaus Strasser
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2014
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There are a number of different uses for urea, but it is perhaps most commonly found in plant and crop fertilizers; it also features as an ingredient in many different resins and plastics, and is sometimes added to cosmetics and consumer products like cigarettes and even gasoline. The compound is usually made from concentrated mammal urine. The chemical process through which it is extracted renders it completely sterile, and in most cases it has a crystalline structure that looks something like rough salt. It has a number of smoothing and adhesive properties that manufacturers of all sorts of products find valuable, and it is prized particularly for its high nitrogen content. Adding it to livestock feed can be an economical way to add nutrients animals might not otherwise get.

History and Basics of Use

The compound, which is sometimes also known as carbamide, is synthesized directly from urine, but it’s important to note at the outset that it isn’t itself a waste product. Rather, it’s a valuable component in a waste product that can have applications in other arenas once it’s been sterilized and processed. There are also ways of synthetically creating this compound outside of urine collection, which often saves both time and resources.

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Urea was first observed in urine by the French chemist Hilaire Rouele. It is a very important part of the metabolic system in humans and most animals, and its primary function in these settings is as a carrier of waste nitrogen. German chemist Friedrich Wohler was the first to create it synthetically, thereby proving that an organic compound can be produced from non-organic materials. This was a significant event in the history of chemistry, as it helped discount the notion that there is some fundamental difference between organic and inorganic matter.

Fertilizers

The most common application of this compound outside of metabolic functioning is as a type of fertilizer. Over 90% of the world's production of the substance is done for fertilizer-related products. When used in this way, it usually takes the form of granules or crystals. These may be manually distributed by farmers or scattered with the aid of farming equipment. It is also often used in fertilizing solutions, since it is highly water soluble, and often comes packed within soil and potting mixes.

Resins and Plastics

This compound is also frequently used as a base product in the manufacture of resins and commercial adhesives. The nitrogen bonds that it contains tend to be very strong, and can really help strengthen a number of glues and tapes. Manufacturers often activate these bonds by dissolving the crystals in formaldehyde. The resulting mixture can be used as an industrial adhesive, as in the production of cardboard boxes; it also features as an ingredient in many poured plastics. In some cases it could also be used as a coating for materials like textiles and paper.

Consumer Products

A number of consumer-oriented and cosmetics products also incorporate this substance. Hair conditioners or tooth-whitening products often use it, for instance, usually as a way to help the product stay thick in the tube or bottle. Dish soaps sometimes also include it in at least in trace amounts to help keep emulsified ingredients from separating.

Facial cleaners sometimes incorporate the substance, too, since it can help in hydrating the skin. Certain makeup products blend it in to help achieve a creamier, glossier finish once applied. Some cigarette brands have, from time to time, added it as a flavor enhancer. Environmental activists in many places are often quick to point out that it can be used in an eco-friendly way to reduce fuel emissions from power plants and diesel engines, too.

Livestock Feed

Urea is sometimes also used in cattle and livestock feed, particularly in the developing world. It is usually considered to be an effective feed since it contains high concentrations of nitrogen, which can generally aid animal growth. The relatively cheap price of urea-based products also makes this feed a popular choice for many farmers. The compound is relatively inexpensive to make and doesn’t cost much to transport, two factors that boost its popularity in many parts of the world. It isn’t always the best choice for a given set of circumstances, but it will work in a great many different ways.

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Mor
Post 5

@Iluviaporos - It actually made urine into a bankable commodity for a while, because the dyers were willing to pay for it.

It's the same as when guano was one of the best sources of fertilizer and people went crazy for that and paid massive amounts for it. I believe it has uric acid rather than urea though.

What I've always wanted to know is how the people originally came up with this solution. It doesn't seem like a very intuitive thing to me, to soak your clothes in urine!

lluviaporos
Post 4

@pastanaga - It's also not all that good for plants if you put it on directly. That's why people get annoyed if dogs pee on the front lawn. The urea in their urine can actually kill off the grass.

Although people have been using the urea in urine for longer than they realized it was there. They used to use it as a setting agent for clothes that were recently dyed. The people who dyed clothes would go around and collect the urine and wash the cloth in it and that would make the color set.

pastanaga
Post 3

@anon135076 - It might be because urea is more likely to pollute than grit or salt. It's generally good for plants and things in small doses but if you add too much of it to waterways it can cause an algae bloom which can kill off everything else in the water when the algae use up all the oxygen.

It can also be pretty bad for humans in concentrated doses and will cause irritation to the skin and other problems. That's why you're supposed to use a mask and gloves when you're using urea for fertilizer.

anon135076
Post 1

when I was in the RAF, we had to do a duty called snow and ice. We spread urea on roads and runways/taxiways to keep them clear, much the same as local councils do with gritters in winter. far superior to grit in my experience. If it's so cheap to produce why doesn't the UK government not use this if there is such a shortage of salt/grit?

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