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What is Urea? - Structure, Formula & Uses

What is Urea? - Structure, Formula & Uses
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  • 0:03 What Is Urea?
  • 0:29 Structure and Formula of Urea
  • 1:44 Uses
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You probably haven't heard of urea, but it is found in urine, fertilizers, and even in certain medications. This lesson will discuss the chemistry of urea as well as its many uses.

What Is Urea?

There's a substance out there that is so versatile it can be used in everything from face creams to fertilizer to spandex to reducing emissions from diesel engines, and it's even used by our own bodies to eliminate toxic ammonia. What is this substance? Urea! Urea, which is sometimes referred to as carbamide, is a solid compound that contains nitrogen.

Structure and Formula of Urea

Urea is also known as carbamide because of the groups it contains. Groups? Yes. In chemistry, certain elements bond together and are referred to as groups. In urea, there is a carbonyl group attached to two amide groups. Now you can see how it gets the name carbamide (carboxyl + amide). A carbonyl group is a carbon atom that is double bonded to an oxygen atom.

The amide group in urea contains nitrogen attached to two hydrogen atoms. So, you put two amide groups with a carbonyl group and you have urea!

urea5

To figure out the formula, you need to count up how many of each atom urea contains:

  • 1 carbon
  • 4 hydrogen
  • 2 nitrogen
  • 1 oxygen

To write the formula, you place the number of each atom as a subscript (except when there's just one atom):

CH4N2O

So far we know that urea is a versatile chemical that has two amide groups and a carbonyl group. Other properties of urea include:

  • Solid
  • Odorless
  • Usually white or colorless
  • Crystalline
  • Dissolves easily in water
  • Organic compound (meaning it contains carbon)

Uses

Let's start with urea's function in the human body. Our bodies use urea to get rid of the products of proteins that have been broken down. When the body breaks down proteins, they are turned in to carbon dioxide, water, and ammonia. Ammonia is toxic and would destroy your cells, so your body must convert it into something less toxic. Through the beauty of chemistry, your liver turns the ammonia into urea, which can then be safely transported to your kidneys and removed through the urine.

But urea has other important uses as well. It's manufactured by exposing ammonia and carbon dioxide to high temperatures and pressures. Urea is manufactured more than any other organic compound, and its claim to fame is its use in fertilizers, with 90% of the urea produced going to fertilizers. Urea is relatively cheap, contains a lot of nitrogen, and is easy to transport, all of which make it a very popular fertilizer.

But, there's more! Urea can be used in diesel engines to reduce nitrous oxide emissions (nitrous oxide is a pollutant). In fact, when urea is injected into the vehicle, the release of nitrous oxide is reduced by 80%.

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