What exactly is air? Partly oxygen of course, partly carbon dioxide as well as a result of respiration, but neither of these touch the most abundant material in Earth’s atmosphere: Nitrogen. You probably don’t realize just how much Nitrogen is around you all the time, but it’s a crucial component of this world.
Safe and Abundant
In its regular gaseous state, Nitrogen is colorless, odorless, noncombustible, and nontoxic. Given its relative safety and neutrality, it makes sense that Nitrogen is the most abundant element in Earth’s atmosphere, making up about ⅘ of the entirety. It is also a critical part of all living matter on the planet.
Nitrogen is the sixth most abundant element in the entire universe, and so it is one of the most plentiful members of the periodic table. Nitrogen can be cooled to a point at which it condenses into its liquid form; liquid Nitrogen is frequently used by humans for all sorts of applications. Solid Nitrogen can also be achieved, and will appear in small white pellets.
This element is highly stable, likely due to the fact that its bonds are incredibly strong on a molecular level. This means that its activation energy is also quite high, which is what contributes to Nitrogen’s unusual stability.
Nitrogen was first detected when scientists began studying air. A Swedish Chemist named Scheele demonstrated in 1772 that air is a mixture of two gases, one which is combustible and one which is not. He did not realize at the time, but the former is Oxygen and the latter is Nitrogen.
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was the first to recognize Nitrogen as an element in the late 1790s, when he also recognized the role of Oxygen in combustion. Nitrogen received its name due to the fact that it was recognized as being one of the materials present in potassium nitrate.
Just because Nitrogen wasn’t recognized until humans had almost entered the 19th century doesn’t mean they weren’t using it well before that. In fact, ancient Egyptians created ammonium chloride (a combination of Nitrogen, Hydrogen, and Chlorine).
Since it makes up the overwhelming majority of the atmosphere on Earth, Nitrogen can be found virtually everywhere in its natural state. Nitrogen also occurs in minerals, but not in great abundance. Liquified air is the preferred method for commercial production of Nitrogen.
Nitrogen gas is important to the chemical industry as it produces ammonia when it reacts with hydrogen. Ammonia is often then turned into Nitrogen fertilizer, which can assist with agriculture efforts. If it is not converted into Nitrogen fertilizer, Ammonia can be used in cleaning products or the manufacturing of things like plastics and dyes.
Liquid Nitrogen is also a widely adopted material, particularly for super cooling or freezing items very quickly.
Some of the common applications of this technology are preserving foods, or freezing cells for medical research or fertility purposes. Despite Nitrogen’s high stability on its own, it can react rather violently in certain combinations.
Nitroglycerin combines Nitrogen, Oxygen, and Carbon to create an oily liquid that is highly volatile, and used in the process of creating dynamite.
Still, Nitrogen isn’t all good. It can cause nutrient pollution which is difficult and costly to get a handle on once too much of it has seeped into the ground or water. This can result in health issues for both animals and people.
Just because you don’t see Nitrogen doesn’t mean that it isn’t there—it’s all around you, and it’s one of the most necessary elements on Earth.