Formamide, also known as methanamide, is a derivative of formic acid that belongs to the group of molecules called amides. These are carbon-based molecules that contain a carbonyl group — a carbon molecule double bonded to an oxygen molecule — with a nitrogen molecule bonded to it. The chemical formula for formamide is CH3NO. It is formed when the carbon in the carbonyl group (C=O) bonds to a hydrogen atom (H) and an amine group (NH2).
There are two ways of producing formamide. The first way is to add ammonia to formic acid to produce an intermediary, ammonium formate, which is then heated to produce formamide. Another way to produce it is to add ammonia to methyl formate, which produces formamide as well as methanol.
This substance has several distinct physical characteristics. In its natural form, it is a clear liquid that is miscible with water, meaning that it can be mixed equally into a solution with water. It has a strong odor that is very similar to that of ammonia. When heated, it will break down into carbon monoxide and ammonia. If it is heated quickly to high temperatures, it can form hydrogen cyanide and water vapor.
Formamide is an industrial chemical that has many different uses in a range of fields. In pharmaceuticals, it is often used during the production of sulfa drugs and some vitamins. Formamide is also used in the manufacture of paper, as a softener to break down fibers and soften different types of paper. In addition, it is able to dissolve compounds formed from ions, so it is often used as a solvent.
In genetics and molecular biology, this chemical is often used to break down nucleic acids — the units that make up DNA and RNA. Breaking down DNA and RNA occurs during such processes as sequencing of the DNA or RNA molecule, as well as viewing the molecules using an electron microscope. It is also used to form complexes of DNA and DNA, DNA and RNA, and RNA and RNA, called hybridizations.
There are safety issues that should be addressed by anyone who is using formamide. It is highly corrosive, can cause excessive burning of the skin and eyes, and can cause death if it is ingested. This chemical has been known to cause birth defects, so should be avoided by women who are in the early stages of pregnancy.