aqua regia äk´wə rē´jēə [key] [Lat.,=royal water], corrosive, fuming yellow liquid prepared by mixing one volume of concentrated nitric acid with three to four volumes of concentrated hydrochloric acid. It was so named by the alchemists because it dissolves gold and platinum, the
royalmetals, which do not dissolve in nitric or hydrochloric acid alone. Its fumes and yellow color are caused by reaction of nitric acid, HNO3, with hydrogen chloride, HCl, to form nitrosyl chloride, NOCl, chlorine, Cl2, and water; both chlorine and nitrosyl chloride are yellow-colored and volatile. The nitrosyl chloride further decomposes to nitric oxide, NO, and chlorine. Nitric acid is a powerful oxidizing agent (see oxidation and reduction), but the chemical equilibrium for its reaction with gold, Au, only permits formation of a tiny amount of Au+3 ion, so the amount of gold dissolved in pure nitric acid is undetectable. The presence of chloride ion, Cl−, allows formation of the stable chloraurate complex ion, AuCl4−. Because of the high concentration of chloride ion in aqua regia, the Au+3 is reacted almost as soon as it is formed, keeping its concentration low; this allows oxidation of more Au to Au+3, and the gold is dissolved. The gold may also react directly with the free chlorine in aqua regia, since chlorine is a powerful oxidizing agent.
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