Ammonium Nitrogen
Ammonium Nitrogen
Nitrogen Cycle
The ammonium ion, NH4+, is an important member of the group of nitrogen-containing
compounds that act as nutrients for aquatic plants and algae. In surface water, most of the
ammonia, NH3, is found in the form of the ammonium ion, NH4+. This fact allows us to
approximate the concentration of all of the nitrogen in the form of ammonia and ammonium
combined, commonly called ammonia nitrogen, by measuring only the concentration of the
ammonium ions.
free nitrogen
(N 2)
animal protein
(NH 4+)
plant protein
de c
mp osition
(NH 4+)
a ti
(NO3 -)
dec ompo siti on
All plants and animals require nitrogen as a nutrient to synthesize amino acids and proteins. Most
nitrogen on earth is found in the atmosphere in the form of N2, but plants and animals cannot
utilize it in this form. The nitrogen must first be converted into a useable form, such as nitrate,
NO3–. These conversions among the various forms of nitrogen form a complex cycle called the
nitrogen cycle, illustrated above.
In the nitrogen cycle, bacteria convert atmospheric
nitrogen into ammonium in a process called nitrogen
fixation. This process often occurs in the roots of
leguminous plants such as alfalfa, beans, and peas.
Bacteria can also convert the nitrogen in decaying
plant and animal matter and waste products in the
soil or water to ammonium in a process called
ammonification. Other sources of organic matter for
ammonification include industrial waste, agricultural
runoff, and sewage treatment effluent.
Water Quality with Vernier
Sources of Ammonia
• Decaying plants and animals
• Animal waste
• Industrial waste effluent
• Agricultural runoff
• Atmospheric nitrogen
10 - 1
Computer 10
Some trees and grasses are able to absorb ammonium ions directly, but most require their
conversion to nitrate. This process, called nitrification, is usually accomplished by bacteria in the
soil or water. In the first step of nitrification, ammonium ions are oxidized into nitrite. The nitrite
is then converted into nitrate, which can subsequently be utilized by plants and algae.
Animals require nitrogen as well. They obtain the nitrogen they need by eating plants or by eating
other animals, which in turn have eaten plants.
If ammonium nitrogen levels in surface waters are too high,
they can be toxic to some aquatic organisms. If the levels are
only moderately high, plant and algal growth will usually
increase due to the abundance of nitrogen available as a
nutrient. This will have a ripple effect on other attributes of
water quality, such as increasing biochemical oxygen
demand and lowering dissolved oxygen levels. Dissolved
oxygen levels can also be lowered when ammonium nitrogen
is high due to the increased amount of nitrification
Effects of Ammonium Levels
• High levels
- eutrophication
- increased algal blooms
- increased BOD
- decreased DO
- toxic to some organisms
• Low levels
- limiting factor in plant and
algal growth
If enough nutrients are present, eutrophication may occur.
Eutrophication occurs when there is such an abundance of nutrients available that there is a
significant increase in plant and algal growth. As these organisms die, they will accumulate on
the bottom and decompose, releasing more nutrients and compounding the problem. In some
cases, this process of eutrophication can become so advanced that the body of water may become
a marsh, and eventually fill in completely.
If too little ammonium nitrogen is present, it may be the limiting factor in the amount of plant
and algal growth. Ammonium nitrogen can quickly be converted into nitrites or nitrates;
therefore, a low level of ammonium-nitrogen does not necessarily indicate a low level of nitrogen
in general.
Expected Levels
Table 1: Ammonium Levels of Selected Rivers
Ammonium-nitrogen levels are usually
quite low in moving surface waters. This
is because there is little decaying organic
(mg/L NH4+-N)
matter collecting on the bottom. If there
Mississippi River, Memphis, TN
is a high level of ammonium nitrogen in
a moving stream, it may be an indication
Hudson River, Poughkeepsie, NY
of pollution of some kind entering the
Colorado River, Hoover Dam, AZ-NV
water. Ponds and swamps usually have a
Willamette River, Portland, OR
higher ammonium nitrogen level than
fast-flowing water. While levels of
Platte River, Louisville, NE
ammonium nitrogen in drinking water
should not exceed 0.5 mg/L, streams or ponds near heavily fertilized fields may have higher
concentrations of this ion. Fertilizers containing ammonium sulfate, (NH4)2SO4, or ammonium
nitrate, NH4NO3, may result in runoff from fields containing a high level of ammonium ions.
Summary of Method
A Vernier Ammonium Ion-Selective Electrode (ISE) is used to measure the concentration of
ammonium nitrogen in the water, either on site or after returning to the lab.
10 - 2
Water Quality with Vernier
Ammonium Nitrogen
Materials Checklist
___ computer
___ Vernier computer interface
___ Logger Pro
___ Ammonium Ion-Selective Electrode
___ tissues
___ Low Standard (1 mg/L NH4+-N)
___ High Standard (100 mg/L NH4+-N)
___ wash bottle with distilled water
___ small paper or plastic cup (optional)
Advanced Preparation
The Vernier Ammonium Ion-Selective Electrode (ISE) should be soaked
in the Ammonium High Standard solution (included with the ISE) for
approximately 15–30 minutes. Important: Make sure the ISE is not
resting on the bottom, and that the small white reference contacts are
immersed. Make sure no air bubbles are trapped below the ISE.
If the ISE needs to be transported to the field during the soaking process,
use the Short-Term ISE Soaking Bottle. Remove the cap from the bottle
and fill it 3/4 full with High Standard. Slide the bottle’s cap onto the ISE,
insert it into the bottle, and tighten. Important: Do not leave the ISE
soaking for more than 24 hours. Long-term storage should be in the
Long-Term ISE Storage Bottle.
Collection and Storage of Samples
ISE soaking for
1. This test can be conducted on site or in the lab. A 100 mL water sample is required.
2. It is important to obtain the sample water from below the surface of the water and as far away
from shore as is safe. If suitable areas of the stream appear to be unreachable, samplers
consisting of a rod and container can be constructed for collection. Refer to page Intro-4 of
the Introduction of this book for more details.
3. If the testing cannot be conducted within a few hours, place the samples in an ice chest or a
Testing Procedure
1. Position the computer safely away from the water. Keep water away from the computer at all
2. Prepare the Ammonium Ion-Selective Electrode (ISE) for data collection.
a. The ISE should be soaking in the High Standard. Make sure that it is not resting on the
bottom of the container, and that the small white reference contacts are immersed.
b. Plug the ISE Sensor into Channel 1 of the Vernier interface.
3. Prepare the computer for data collection by opening the file “10 Ammonium” from the Water
Quality with Vernier folder of Logger Pro.
Water Quality with Vernier
10 - 3
Computer 10
4. You are now ready to calibrate the Ammonium ISE.
First Calibration Point
a. Choose Calibrate CH1: Ammonium ISE (mg/L) from the Experiment menu and then
b. Type 100 (the concentration in mg/L NH4+-N) in the edit box.
c. When the displayed voltage reading for Reading 1 stabilizes, click
Second Calibration Point
d. Rinse the ISE thoroughly with distilled water and gently blot it dry with a tissue. Be very
gentle when blotting the membrane. Important: Failure to carefully rinse and dry the ISE
will contaminate the standard.
e. Place the tip of the ISE into the Low Standard (1 mg/L NH4+-N). Be sure that the ISE is
not resting on the bottom of the bottle and that the small white reference contacts are
immersed. Make sure no air bubbles are trapped below the ISE.
f. After briefly swirling the solution, hold the ISE still and wait approximately 30 seconds
for the voltage reading displayed on the computer screen to stabilize.
g. Enter 1 (the concentration in mg/L NH4+-N) in the edit box.
h. When the displayed voltage reading for Reading 2 stabilizes, click
, then click
5. You are now ready to collect ammonium concentration data.
a. Rinse the ISE with distilled water and
gently blot it dry.
b. Place the tip of the probe into the stream
at Site 1, or into a cup with sample
water from the stream. Make sure the
ISE is not resting on the bottom and that
the small white reference contacts are
immersed. Make sure that no air bubbles
are trapped below the ISE.
c. Click
to begin data collection.
to begin a 10 s sampling
d. Click
run. Important: Leave the probe tip
submerged for the 10 seconds that data
is being collected.
e. When the sampling run is complete, stop data collection and record the mean ammonium
concentration value on the Data & Calculations sheet.
6. Return to Step 5 to obtain a second reading.
10 - 4
Water Quality with Vernier
Ammonium Nitrogen
Ammonium Nitrogen
Stream or lake: ____________________________
Time of day: ____________________________
Site name: ________________________________
Student name: __________________________
Site number: ______________________________
Student name: __________________________
Date: ____________________________________
Student name: __________________________
NH4+ -N
NH4+ -N
Column Procedure:
A. Record the ammonium nitrogen concentration as read from the computer.
Field Observations (e.g., weather, geography, vegetation along stream) ___________________________
Test Completed: ________________ Date: ______
Water Quality with Vernier
10 - 5
Vernier Lab Safety Instructions Disclaimer
This copy does not include:
Safety information
Essential instructor background information
Directions for preparing solutions
Important tips for successfully doing these labs
The complete Water Quality with Vernier lab manual includes 16 water quality tests and
essential teacher information. The full lab book is available for purchase at:
Vernier Software & Technology
13979 S.W. Millikan Way • Beaverton, OR 97005-2886
Toll Free (888) 837-6437 • (503) 277-2299 • FAX (503) 277-2440
[email protected] •
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