Formic acid

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Formic acid
Skeletal structure of formic acid Formic acid.svg
Skeletal structure of formic acid
3D model of formic acid Formic-acid-CRC-MW-3D-balls.png
3D model of formic acid
Formic acid 85 percent.jpg
Preferred IUPAC name
Formic acid [1]
Systematic IUPAC name
Methanoic acid [1]
Other names
Isocarbonous acid
Carbonous acid
Formylic acid
Methylic acid
Hydrogencarboxylic acid
Metacarbonoic acid
Oxocarbinic acid
Hydroxymethylene oxide
Ant acid
3D model (JSmol)
ECHA InfoCard 100.000.527 OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg
EC Number
  • 200-579-1
E number E236 (preservatives)
PubChem CID
RTECS number
  • LQ4900000
  • InChI=1S/HCOOH/c2-1-3/h1H,(H,2,3) X mark.svgN
  • InChI=1/HCOOH/c2-1-3/h1H,(H,2,3)
  • O=CO
Molar mass 46.025 g·mol−1
AppearanceColorless fuming liquid
Odor Pungent, penetrating
Density 1.220 g/mL
Melting point 8.4 °C (47.1 °F; 281.5 K)
Boiling point 100.8 °C (213.4 °F; 373.9 K)
Solubility Miscible with ether, acetone, ethyl acetate, glycerol, methanol, ethanol
Partially soluble in benzene, toluene, xylenes
log P −0.54
Vapor pressure 35 mmHg (20 °C) [2]
Acidity (pKa)3.745 [3]
Conjugate base Formate
−19.90×10−6 cm3/mol
1.3714 (20 °C)
Viscosity 1.57 cP at 268 °C
1.41  D (gas)
Std molar
131.8 J/mol K
−425.0 kJ/mol
−254.6 kJ/mol
QP53AG01 ( WHO )
Occupational safety and health (OHS/OSH):
Main hazards
Corrosive; irritant;
GHS labelling:
P260, P264, P280, P301+P330+P331, P303+P361+P353, P304+P340, P305+P351+P338, P310, P321, P363, P405, P501
NFPA 704 (fire diamond)
Flash point 69 °C (156 °F; 342 K)
601 °C (1,114 °F; 874 K)
Explosive limits 14–34%[ citation needed ]
18–57% (90% solution) [2]
Lethal dose or concentration (LD, LC):
700 mg/kg (mouse, oral), 1100 mg/kg (rat, oral), 4000 mg/kg (dog, oral) [4]
7853 ppm (rat, 15 min)
3246 ppm (mouse, 15 min) [4]
NIOSH (US health exposure limits):
PEL (Permissible)
TWA 5 ppm (9 mg/m3) [2]
REL (Recommended)
TWA 5 ppm (9 mg/m3) [2]
IDLH (Immediate danger)
30 ppm [2]
Safety data sheet (SDS) MSDS from JT Baker
Related compounds
Acetic acid
Propionic acid
Related compounds
Supplementary data page
Formic acid (data page)
Except where otherwise noted, data are given for materials in their standard state (at 25 °C [77 °F], 100 kPa).
X mark.svgN  verify  (what is  Yes check.svgYX mark.svgN ?)

Formic acid (from Latin formica ' ant '), systematically named methanoic acid, is the simplest carboxylic acid, and has the chemical formula HCOOH and structure H−C(=O)−O−H. It is an important intermediate in chemical synthesis and occurs naturally, most notably in some ants. Esters, salts and the anion derived from formic acid are called formates. Industrially, formic acid is produced from methanol.

Natural occurrence

In nature, formic acid is found in most ants and in stingless bees of the genus Oxytrigona . [5] [6] Wood ants from the genus Formica can spray formic acid on their prey or to defend the nest. The puss moth caterpillar (Cerura vinula) will spray it as well when threatened by predators. It is also found in the trichomes of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Apart from that, this acid is incorporated in many fruits such as pineapple (0.21mg per 100g), apple (2mg per 100g) and kiwi (1mg per 100g), as well as in many vegetables, namely onion (45mg per 100g), eggplant (1.34 mg per 100g) and, in extremely low concentrations, cucumber (0.11mg per 100g). [7] Formic acid is a naturally occurring component of the atmosphere primarily due to forest emissions. [8]


Some alchemists and naturalists were aware that ant hills give off an acidic vapor as early as the 15th century. The first person to describe the isolation of this substance (by the distillation of large numbers of ants) was the English naturalist John Ray, in 1671. [9] [10] Ants secrete the formic acid for attack and defense purposes. Formic acid was first synthesized from hydrocyanic acid by the French chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac. In 1855, another French chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, developed a synthesis from carbon monoxide similar to the process used today.

Formic acid was long considered a chemical compound of only minor interest in the chemical industry. In the late 1960s, however, significant quantities became available as a byproduct of acetic acid production. It now finds increasing use as a preservative and antibacterial in livestock feed.


Cyclic dimer of formic acid; dashed green lines represent hydrogen bonds Formic Acid Hydrogenbridge V.1.svg
Cyclic dimer of formic acid; dashed green lines represent hydrogen bonds

Formic acid is a colorless liquid having a pungent, penetrating odor [11] at room temperature, comparable to the related acetic acid. Formic acid is about ten times stronger than acetic acid.

It is miscible with water and most polar organic solvents, and is somewhat soluble in hydrocarbons. In hydrocarbons and in the vapor phase, it consists of hydrogen-bonded dimers rather than individual molecules. [12] [13] Owing to its tendency to hydrogen-bond, gaseous formic acid does not obey the ideal gas law. [13] Solid formic acid, which can exist in either of two polymorphs, consists of an effectively endless network of hydrogen-bonded formic acid molecules. Formic acid forms a high-boiling azeotrope with water (22.4%). Liquid formic acid tends to supercool.

Chemical reactions


Formic acid readily decomposes by dehydration in the presence of concentrated sulfuric acid to form carbon monoxide and water:

HCO2H → H2O + CO

Treatment of formic acid with sulfuric acid is a convenient laboratory source of CO. [14] [15]

In the presence of platinum, it decomposes with a release of hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

HCO2H → H2 + CO2

Soluble ruthenium catalysts are also effective. [16] [17] Carbon monoxide free hydrogen has been generated in a very wide pressure range (1–600 bar). [16]


Formic acid shares most of the chemical properties of other carboxylic acids. Because of its high acidity, solutions in alcohols form esters spontaneously. Formic acid shares some of the reducing properties of aldehydes, reducing solutions of metal oxides to their respective metal. [18]

Formic acid is a source for a formyl group for example in the formylation of methylaniline to N-methylformanilide in toluene. [19]

In synthetic organic chemistry, formic acid is often used as a source of hydride ion, as in the Eschweiler-Clarke reaction:

The Eschweiler-Clark reaction Eschweiler-Clarke Reaction.svg
The Eschweiler–Clark reaction

It is used as a source of hydrogen in transfer hydrogenation, as in the Leuckart reaction to make amines, and (in aqueous solution or in its azeotrope with triethylamine) for hydrogenation of ketones. [20]

Addition to alkenes

Formic acid is unique among the carboxylic acids in its ability to participate in addition reactions with alkenes. Formic acids and alkenes readily react to form formate esters. In the presence of certain acids, including sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids, however, a variant of the Koch reaction occurs instead, and formic acid adds to the alkene to produce a larger carboxylic acid. [21]

Formic acid anhydride

An unstable formic anhydride, H(C=O)−O−(C=O)H, can be obtained by dehydration of formic acid with N,N-dicyclohexylcarbodiimide in ether at low temperature. [22]


In 2009, the worldwide capacity for producing formic acid was 720 thousand tonnes (1.6 billion pounds) per year, roughly equally divided between Europe (350 thousand tonnes or 770 million pounds, mainly in Germany) and Asia (370 thousand tonnes or 820 million pounds, mainly in China) while production was below 1 thousand tonnes or 2.2 million pounds per year in all other continents. [23] It is commercially available in solutions of various concentrations between 85 and 99 w/w %. [12] As of 2009, the largest producers are BASF, Eastman Chemical Company, LC Industrial, and Feicheng Acid Chemicals, with the largest production facilities in Ludwigshafen (200 thousand tonnes or 440 million pounds per year, BASF, Germany), Oulu (105 thousand tonnes or 230 million pounds, Eastman, Finland), Nakhon Pathom (n/a, LC Industrial), and Feicheng (100 thousand tonnes or 220 million pounds, Feicheng, China). 2010 prices ranged from around €650/tonne (equivalent to around $800/tonne) in Western Europe to $1250/tonne in the United States. [23]

From methyl formate and formamide

When methanol and carbon monoxide are combined in the presence of a strong base, the result is methyl formate, according to the chemical equation: [12]


In industry, this reaction is performed in the liquid phase at elevated pressure. Typical reaction conditions are 80 °C and 40 atm. The most widely used base is sodium methoxide. Hydrolysis of the methyl formate produces formic acid:


Efficient hydrolysis of methyl formate requires a large excess of water. Some routes proceed indirectly by first treating the methyl formate with ammonia to give formamide, which is then hydrolyzed with sulfuric acid:

HCO2CH3 + NH3 → HC(O)NH2 + CH3OH
2 HC(O)NH2 + 2H2O + H2SO4 → 2HCO2H + (NH4)2SO4

A disadvantage of this approach is the need to dispose of the ammonium sulfate byproduct. This problem has led some manufacturers to develop energy-efficient methods of separating formic acid from the excess water used in direct hydrolysis. In one of these processes, used by BASF, the formic acid is removed from the water by liquid-liquid extraction with an organic base.[ citation needed ]

Niche and obsolete chemical routes

By-product of acetic acid production

A significant amount of formic acid is produced as a byproduct in the manufacture of other chemicals. At one time, acetic acid was produced on a large scale by oxidation of alkanes, by a process that cogenerates significant formic acid. [12] This oxidative route to acetic acid has declined in importance so that the aforementioned dedicated routes to formic acid have become more important.

Hydrogenation of carbon dioxide

The catalytic hydrogenation of CO2 to formic acid has long been studied. This reaction can be conducted homogeneously. [24] [25]

Oxidation of biomass

Formic acid can also be obtained by aqueous catalytic partial oxidation of wet biomass by the OxFA process. [26] [27] A Keggin-type polyoxometalate (H5PV2Mo10O40) is used as the homogeneous catalyst to convert sugars, wood, waste paper, or cyanobacteria to formic acid and CO2 as the sole byproduct. Yields of up to 53% formic acid can be achieved.[ citation needed ]

Laboratory methods

In the laboratory, formic acid can be obtained by heating oxalic acid in glycerol and extraction by steam distillation. [28] Glycerol acts as a catalyst, as the reaction proceeds through a glyceryl oxalate intermediate. If the reaction mixture is heated to higher temperatures, allyl alcohol results. The net reaction is thus:

C2O4H2 → HCO2H + CO2

Another illustrative method involves the reaction between lead formate and hydrogen sulfide, driven by the formation of lead sulfide. [29]

Pb(HCOO)2 + H2S → 2HCOOH + PbS

Electrochemical production

It has been reported that formate can be formed by the electrochemical reduction of CO2 (in the form of bicarbonate) at a lead cathode at pH 8.6: [30]

+ H
+ 2eHCO
+ 2OH


+ H
+ 2eHCO
+ OH

If the feed is CO
and oxygen is evolved at the anode, the total reaction is:

CO2 + OH
+ 1/2 O2

Artificial photosynthesis

In August 2020, researchers at Cambridge University announced a stand-alone advanced 'photosheet' technology that converts sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and formic acid with no other inputs. [31]


Formic acid is named after ants which have high concentrations of the compound in their venom. In ants, formic acid is derived from serine through a 5,10-methenyltetrahydrofolate intermediate. [32] The conjugate base of formic acid, formate, also occurs widely in nature. An assay for formic acid in body fluids, designed for determination of formate after methanol poisoning, is based on the reaction of formate with bacterial formate dehydrogenase. [33]



A major use of formic acid is as preservative and antibacterial agent in livestock feed. In Europe, it is applied on silage, including fresh hay, to promote the fermentation of lactic acid and to suppress the formation of butyric acid; it also allows fermentation to occur quickly, and at a lower temperature, reducing the loss of nutritional value. [12] Formic acid arrests certain decay processes and causes the feed to retain its nutritive value longer, and so it is widely used to preserve winter feed for cattle. [34] In the poultry industry, it is sometimes added to feed to kill E. coli bacteria. [35] [36] Use as a preservative for silage and (other) animal feed constituted 30% of the global consumption in 2009. [23]

Beekeepers use formic acid as a miticide against the tracheal mite ( Acarapis woodi ) and the Varroa destructor mite and Varroa jacobsoni mite. [37]


Formic acid can be used in a fuel cell (it can be used directly in formic acid fuel cells and indirectly in hydrogen fuel cells). [38] [39]

Electrolytic conversion of electrical energy to chemical fuel has been proposed as a large-scale source of formate by various groups. [40] The formate could be used as feed to modified E. coli bacteria for producing biomass. [41] [42] Natural microbes do exist that can feed on formic acid or formate (see Methylotroph).

Formic acid has been considered as a means of hydrogen storage. [43] The co-product of this decomposition, carbon dioxide, can be rehydrogenated back to formic acid in a second step. Formic acid contains 53 g/L hydrogen at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, which is three and a half times as much as compressed hydrogen gas can attain at 350 bar pressure (14.7 g/L). Pure formic acid is a liquid with a flash point of +69 °C, much higher than that of gasoline (40 °C) or ethanol (+13 °C).[ citation needed ]

It is possible to use formic acid as an intermediary to produce isobutanol from CO2 using microbes. [44] [45]


Formic acid has a potential application in soldering. Due to its capacity to reduce oxide layers, formic acid gas can be blasted at an oxide surface in order to increase solder wettability.


Formic acid used as a volatile pH modifier in HPLC and capillary electrophoresis. Formic acid is often used as a component of mobile phase in reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography (RP-HPLC) analysis and separation techniques for the separation of hydrophobic macromolecules, such as peptides, proteins and more complex structures including intact viruses. Especially when paired with mass spectrometry detection, formic acid offers several advantages over the more traditionally used phosphoric acid. [46] [47]

Other uses

Formic acid is also significantly used in the production of leather, including tanning (23% of the global consumption in 2009 [23] ), and in dyeing and finishing textiles (9% of the global consumption in 2009 [23] ) because of its acidic nature. Use as a coagulant in the production of rubber [12] consumed 6% of the global production in 2009. [23]

Formic acid is also used in place of mineral acids for various cleaning products, [12] such as limescale remover and toilet bowl cleaner. Some formate esters are artificial flavorings and perfumes.

Formic acid application has been reported to be an effective treatment for warts. [48]


Formic acid has low toxicity (hence its use as a food additive), with an LD50 of 1.8 g/kg (tested orally on mice). The concentrated acid is corrosive to the skin. [12]

Formic acid is readily metabolized and eliminated by the body. Nonetheless, it has specific toxic effects; the formic acid and formaldehyde produced as metabolites of methanol are responsible for the optic nerve damage, causing blindness, seen in methanol poisoning. [49] Some chronic effects of formic acid exposure have been documented. Some experiments on bacterial species have demonstrated it to be a mutagen. [50] Chronic exposure in humans may cause kidney damage. [50] Another possible effect of chronic exposure is development of a skin allergy that manifests upon re-exposure to the chemical.

Concentrated formic acid slowly decomposes to carbon monoxide and water, leading to pressure buildup in the containing vessel. For this reason, 98% formic acid is shipped in plastic bottles with self-venting caps.

The hazards of solutions of formic acid depend on the concentration. The following table lists the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals for formic acid solutions:[ citation needed ]

Concentration (weight percent)Pictogram H-Phrases
2–10% GHS-pictogram-exclam.svg H315
10–90% GHS-pictogram-acid.svg H313
>90% GHS-pictogram-acid.svg H314

Formic acid in 85% concentration is flammable, and diluted formic acid is on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration list of food additives. [51] The principal danger from formic acid is from skin or eye contact with the concentrated liquid or vapors. The U.S. OSHA Permissible Exposure Level (PEL) of formic acid vapor in the work environment is 5 parts per million parts of air (ppm).

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carboxylic acid</span> Organic compound containing a –C(=O)OH group

In organic chemistry, a carboxylic acid is an organic acid that contains a carboxyl group attached to an R-group. The general formula of a carboxylic acid is R−COOH or R−CO2H, with R referring to the alkyl, alkenyl, aryl, or other group. Carboxylic acids occur widely. Important examples include the amino acids and fatty acids. Deprotonation of a carboxylic acid gives a carboxylate anion.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ester</span> Compound derived from an acid

In chemistry, an ester is a compound derived from an acid in which the hydrogen atom (H) of at least one acidic hydroxyl group of that acid is replaced by an organyl group. Analogues derived from oxygen replaced by other chalcogens belong to the ester category as well. According to some authors, organyl derivatives of acidic hydrogen of other acids are esters as well, but not according to the IUPAC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Methanol</span> CH3OH; simplest alcohol

Methanol (also called methyl alcohol and wood spirit, amongst other names) is an organic chemical and the simplest aliphatic alcohol, with the formula CH3OH (a methyl group linked to a hydroxyl group, often abbreviated as MeOH). It is a light, volatile, colorless and flammable liquid with a distinctive alcoholic odour similar to that of ethanol (potable alcohol). Methanol acquired the name wood alcohol because it was once produced chiefly by the destructive distillation of wood. Today, methanol is mainly produced industrially by hydrogenation of carbon monoxide.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aldehyde</span> Organic compound containing the functional group R−CH=O

In organic chemistry, an aldehyde is an organic compound containing a functional group with the structure R−CH=O. The functional group itself can be referred to as an aldehyde but can also be classified as a formyl group. Aldehydes are common and are important in technology and biology.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acetate</span> Salt compound formed from acetic acid and a base

An acetate is a salt formed by the combination of acetic acid with a base. "Acetate" also describes the conjugate base or ion typically found in aqueous solution and written with the chemical formula C
. The neutral molecules formed by the combination of the acetate ion and a positive ion are also commonly called "acetates". The simplest of these is hydrogen acetate with corresponding salts, esters, and the polyatomic anion CH
, or CH

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alkylation</span> Transfer of an alkyl group from one molecule to another

Alkylation is a chemical reaction that entails transfer of an alkyl group. The alkyl group may be transferred as an alkyl carbocation, a free radical, a carbanion, or a carbene. Alkylating agents are reagents for effecting alkylation. Alkyl groups can also be removed in a process known as dealkylation. Alkylating agents are often classified according to their nucleophilic or electrophilic character. In oil refining contexts, alkylation refers to a particular alkylation of isobutane with olefins. For upgrading of petroleum, alkylation produces a premium blending stock for gasoline. In medicine, alkylation of DNA is used in chemotherapy to damage the DNA of cancer cells. Alkylation is accomplished with the class of drugs called alkylating antineoplastic agents.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Formamide</span> Chemical compound

Formamide is an amide derived from formic acid. It is a colorless liquid which is miscible with water and has an ammonia-like odor. It is chemical feedstock for the manufacture of sulfa drugs and other pharmaceuticals, herbicides and pesticides, and in the manufacture of hydrocyanic acid. It has been used as a softener for paper and fiber. It is a solvent for many ionic compounds. It has also been used as a solvent for resins and plasticizers. Some astrobiologists suggest that it may be an alternative to water as the main solvent in other forms of life.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Terephthalic acid</span> Chemical compound

Terephthalic acid is an organic compound with formula C6H4(CO2H)2. This white solid is a commodity chemical, used principally as a precursor to the polyester PET, used to make clothing and plastic bottles. Several million tons are produced annually. The common name is derived from the turpentine-producing tree Pistacia terebinthus and phthalic acid.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Formate</span> Salt or ester of formic acid

Formate is the conjugate base of formic acid. Formate is an anion or its derivatives such as ester of formic acid. The salts and esters are generally colorless.

In chemistry, disproportionation, sometimes called dismutation, is a redox reaction in which one compound of intermediate oxidation state converts to two compounds, one of higher and one of lower oxidation states. More generally, the term can be applied to any desymmetrizing reaction of the following type, regardless of whether it is a redox or some other type of process:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Propan-1-ol</span> Primary alcohol compound

Propan-1-ol is a primary alcohol with the formula CH3CH2CH2OH and sometimes represented as PrOH or n-PrOH. It is a colourless liquid and an isomer of 2-propanol. It is formed naturally in small amounts during many fermentation processes and used as a solvent in the pharmaceutical industry, mainly for resins and cellulose esters, and, sometimes, as a disinfecting agent.

Formic acid fuel cells (direct formic acid fuel cells or DFAFCs) are a subcategory of direct liquid-feed fuel cells (DLFCs), in which the liquid fuel is directly oxidized (electrochemically) at the anode instead of reforming to produce hydrogen. Formic acid-based fuel cells represent a promising energy supply system in terms of high volumetric energy density, theoretical energy efficiency, and theoretical open-circuit voltage. They are also able to overcome certain problems inherent to traditional hydrogen (H2) feed fuel cells such as safe handling, storage, and H2 transportation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carbonate ester</span> Chemical group (R–O–C(=O)–O–R)

In organic chemistry, a carbonate ester is an ester of carbonic acid. This functional group consists of a carbonyl group flanked by two alkoxy groups. The general structure of these carbonates is R−O−C(=O)−O−R' and they are related to esters, ethers and also to the inorganic carbonates.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dakin oxidation</span> Organic redox reaction that converts hydroxyphenyl aldehydes or ketones into benzenediols

The Dakin oxidation is an organic redox reaction in which an ortho- or para-hydroxylated phenyl aldehyde or ketone reacts with hydrogen peroxide in base to form a benzenediol and a carboxylate. Overall, the carbonyl group is oxidised, whereas the H2O2 is reduced.

In electrochemistry, electrosynthesis is the synthesis of chemical compounds in an electrochemical cell. Compared to ordinary redox reactions, electrosynthesis sometimes offers improved selectivity and yields. Electrosynthesis is actively studied as a science and also has industrial applications. Electrooxidation has potential for wastewater treatment as well.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ammonium formate</span> Chemical compound

Ammonium formate, NH4HCO2, is the ammonium salt of formic acid. It is a colorless, hygroscopic, crystalline solid.

In organometallic chemistry, a migratory insertion is a type of reaction wherein two ligands on a metal complex combine. It is a subset of reactions that very closely resembles the insertion reactions, and both are differentiated by the mechanism that leads to the resulting stereochemistry of the products. However, often the two are used interchangeably because the mechanism is sometimes unknown. Therefore, migratory insertion reactions or insertion reactions, for short, are defined not by the mechanism but by the overall regiochemistry wherein one chemical entity interposes itself into an existing bond of typically a second chemical entity e.g.:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Organoiridium chemistry</span>

Organoiridium chemistry is the chemistry of organometallic compounds containing an iridium-carbon chemical bond. Organoiridium compounds are relevant to many important processes including olefin hydrogenation and the industrial synthesis of acetic acid. They are also of great academic interest because of the diversity of the reactions and their relevance to the synthesis of fine chemicals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acetic acid</span> Colorless and faint organic acid found in vinegar

Acetic acid, systematically named ethanoic acid, is an acidic, colourless liquid and organic compound with the chemical formula CH3COOH. Vinegar is at least 4% acetic acid by volume, making acetic acid the main component of vinegar apart from water and other trace elements.

Methane functionalization is the process of converting methane in its gaseous state to another molecule with a functional group, typically methanol or acetic acid, through the use of transition metal catalysts.


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