IUPAC defines azo compounds as: "Derivatives of diazene (diimide), HN=NH, wherein both hydrogens are substituted by hydrocarbyl groups, e.g. PhN=NPh azobenzene or diphenyldiazene." The more stable derivatives contain two aryl groups. The N=N group is called an azo group. The name azo comes from azote, the French name for nitrogen that is derived from the Greek ἀ- (a-, "not") + ζωή (zōē, life).
Aryl azo compounds are usually stable, crystalline species. Azobenzene is the prototypical aromatic azo compound. It exists mainly as the trans isomer, but upon illumination, converts to the cis isomer.
A bis-azo compound is depicted as an eagle, and the trans-cis isomerization of the azo groups is compared to the flapping wings
Since diazonium salts are often unstable near room temperature, the azo coupling reactions are typically conducted near 0 °C. The oxidation of hydrazines (R−NH−NH−R′) also gives azo compounds. Azo dyes are also prepared by the condensation of nitroaromatics with anilines followed by reduction of the resulting azoxy intermediate:
As a consequence of п-delocalization, aryl azo compounds have vivid colors, especially reds, oranges, and yellows. Therefore, they are used as dyes, and are commonly known as azo dyes, an example of which is Disperse Orange 1. Some azo compounds, e.g., methyl orange, are used as acid-base indicators due to the different colors of their acid and salt forms. Most DVD-R/+R and some CD-R discs use blue azo dye as the recording layer. The commercial success of azo dyes motivated the development of azo compounds in general.
Alkyl azo compounds
Aliphatic azo compounds (R and/or R′ = aliphatic) are less commonly encountered than the aryl azo compounds. A commercially important alkyl azo compound is azobisisobutyronitrile (AIBN), which is widely used as an initiator in free-radical polymerizations and other radical-induced reactions. It achieves this initiation by decomposition, eliminating a molecule of nitrogen gas to form two 2-cyanoprop-2-yl radicals:
Many azo pigments are non-toxic, although some, such as dinitroaniline orange, ortho-nitroaniline orange, or pigment orange 1, 2, and 5 have been found to be mutagenic. Likewise, several case studies have linked azo pigments with basal cell carcinoma.
Certain azo dyes can break down under reductive conditions to release any of a group of defined aromatic amines. Consumer goods which contain listed aromatic amines originating from azo dyes were prohibited from manufacture and sale in European Union countries in September 2003. As only a small number of dyes contained an equally small number of amines, relatively few products were affected.
^Klaus Hunger, Peter Mischke, Wolfgang Rieper, Roderich Raue, Klaus Kunde, Aloys Engel: "Azo Dyes" in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 2005, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.doi:10.1002/14356007.a03_245.
^Eva Engel; Heidi Ulrich; Rudolf Vasold; Burkhard König; Michael Landthaler; Rudolf Süttinger; Wolfgang Bäumler (2008). "Azo Pigments and a Basal Cell Carcinoma at the Thumb". Dermatology. 216 (1): 76–80. doi:10.1159/000109363. PMID18032904.