Courtesy of Patrick J. Gleason
The Smoker's Club, Inc. Encyclopedia 16
Nicotine: What is it, and where does it come from?
Time to clear the air.
The best way to understand nicotine, if you don't have a lot of chemistry background is to understand table salt.
The chemical name for table salt is "sodium chloride". It is made up of two chemical elements named "sodium" and "chlorine".
Sodium is a soft, dull grey metal that looks a lot like aluminum or lead. Unlike aluminum or lead however, metallic sodium is rather unstable. Drop some of it into water and it immediately bursts into flames. Expose it to air and it reacts with oxygen and water vapor to form white, powdery crystals. It has to be stored in an oxygen free atmosphere to retain its pure, metallic form. Usually, it is stored in oil.
Chlorine is a highly toxic gas. When concentrated, it has a pale, yellowish green color. Like sodium, chlorine reacts quickly with just about everything. Chlorine bleach, which has chlorine dissolved in water, allows the water to dissolve wood, paper, cotton, fat, human skin, and just about every living tissue. This is why chlorine kills you pretty quickly if you inhale the stuff. Chlorine gas was one of the first chemical weapons invented and used in World War I.
However, mix sodium and chlorine together and the two neutralize each other to form sodium chloride, a harmless, stable chemical compound that we call "table salt". Small to moderate amounts of sodium chloride are found in every living thing on earth. In fact, without the stuff, a person would get sick and die.
Nicotine has a chemical nature much like sodium. In its pure form, which is called "freebase nicotine", it reacts chemically with oxygen in the air, with water, and most other living tissues, destroying them instantly.
Freebase nicotine is highly poisonous and is sometimes used as an insecticide. It makes a good insecticide because it only lasts about half an hour in the environment, being so unstable in the presence of air. In very small amounts, freebase nicotine can be injected into a person's bloodstream and has an effect almost identical to ........
All green, living plants produce and store nicotine. They use the nicotine to produce another chemcal compound called NADP (nicotinic acid adenine dinucleotide phosphate). NADP is what breaks apart water molecules during photosynthesis. Plants make NADP from nitrates and phosphates found in the soil. The common name for nitrates and phosphates is "fertilizer".
The secret to how plants store nicotine, without the nicotine killing them, is that they combine it with other things to make more stable compounds. The common forms of nicotine stored in plants are nicotine citrate, nicotine malate, nicotine sulfate, nicotine oxide (cotinine), and nicotinic acid (vitamin B3, niacin). Like table salt, these compounds formed from nicotine are stable, are not poisonous, are not addictive drugs, and are essential to good human health and nutrition.
The tobacco plant stores its nicotine as a mixture of nicotine citrate and nicotine malate. The tobacco plant happens to produce a lot off nicotine because it grows quickly. Corn and hemp (.........) also produce and store nicotine at roughly the same rate as tobacco, because they also can grow six to ten feet in one season.
To give a clear picture of just how unstable freebase nicotine is, let's look at a few facts about it. According to the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), freebase nicotine has the following physical properties:
Melting Point: -80 degrees Celsius
Boiling Point: 247 degrees Celsius
Flash Point: 95 degrees Celsius
Auto-Ignition Temperature: 240 degrees Celsius
Explosive Limits: 0.7 - 4 percent, by volume, in air
Vapor Pressure at Room Temperature: 0.006 kPa
The interesting thing to note here is that the auto-ignition temperature is lower than the boiling point. This means that, if you heat freebase nicotine in an air free container, it will detonate (explode) before it boils.
Nicotine is so unstable that it does not need to react chemically with anything to have an explosion occur. Its low vapor pressure tells us that nicotine does not evaporate on its own. If you heat it, nicotine will decompose chemically before it boils. Furthermore, in the presence of air, nicotine bursts into flames at a temperature just below the boiling point of water.
For a reference on the physical properties of nicotine, you can check the IPCS:
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