Question: How can nitrogen/nitrates/ammonia be measured?

warren is asking a question about nitrates
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by warren | March 12, 2019 21:53 | #18527

I'm copying this information from the Common Water Contaminants page, but would love to learn more ways to measure nitrogen as well; please help us compile different techniques!

Assaying Nitrogen

The wet lab Kjeldahl Method is often used to get the measurement TKN, or Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen.

EPA Method 353.2 involves a cobalt catalyst and spectroscopy in the visible range.

UV Spectroscopy

In Situ Underwater Spectroscopy (UV in the ocean):

Ultraviolet spectrophotometric determination of nitrate: detecting nitrification rates and inhibition. Kelly RT 2nd, Love NG. Water Environ Res. 2007 Jul;79(7):808-12.

TSS, BOD, and Nitrate with a single 200nm-720nm spectrometer ON-LINE NITRATE MONITORING IN SEWERS USING UV/VIS SPECTROSCOPY F. Hofstaedter, T. Ertl, G. Langergraber, W. Lettl, A. Weingartne

Potentiometric Measurements of Nitrate and Ammonium using Ion Selective Electrodes

Ion selective electrodes (discussed here) can be used to conveniently measure ammonium and nitrate. These electrodes behave similarly to commonly used pH electrodes. The main difference between a pH electrode and an ion selective electrode (ISE) is that the former has a glass surface that is electrically polarized by protons and the latter has a membrane that is responsive to the ion in question. Like a pH electrode, an ion selective electrode responds to changes in analyte concentration by a measurable change in voltage. Ion selective electrodes can be measured with most pH meters. These electrodes can be purchased from a variety of sources (VWR, Fisher, etc) but are somewhat more expensive than pH electrodes. Vernier sells ammonium and nitrate sensitive electrodes (here) for $179 each.


Warren got most of the problems with kjeldahl. Here are a few more. Kjeldahl testing takes some specialty glassware. It's not terribly hard to locate, but it's not run of the mill stuff, either.

The procedures take a while to get the hang of. If you aren't using automated equipment, try to observe a lab doing the test before trying it yourself. And it is rather time intensive.

I've used ion chromatography(IC) to analyze for a number of ions, including nitrate and nitrite. The new instruments dedicated to IC are much better, but it is possible to get good performance with an HPLC and UV detector. If anyone wants to go that route.
A different detector I've used for nitrate and nitrosamine detection used pyrolyzing the chemical, then reacting it with ozone. It chemiluminesces in the blue. That detector was expensive, but sensitive to ppb ranges.

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My mistake, it chemiluminesces in the red, not the blue. Sorry about that.

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