Nitrogen

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. 

Examining Air

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. 

Super Cool

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. 

Nitrogen

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.

Boron

If you’re looking for a material that spans from common, household uses to obscure and funny sounding ones, Boron is the element for you. This unusual member of the periodic table has a hard time deciding exactly what it wants to be, but perhaps that indecision is what makes it so useful. 

Not Quite This or That

In its isolated form Boron is known as a metalloid, which means that it has properties which are both metallic and nonmetallic. For this reason, it manifests as a sort of amorphous powder (that looks a lot like dirt) on its own. 

Boron can be found in great abundance in all sorts of items with which people interact daily. In fact, Boron is even critical to plant cell health, as it helps maintain their walls. Humans ingest a couple of milligrams of Boron everyday through food. 

An Overdue Discovery

Boron was first recognized by French and English scientists in 1808, but they were unsuccessful in attempts to isolate it completely; their results were highly impure forms of the material. The first isolation of Boron came more than 100 years later in 1909, but even then it was only 99% pure (the highest level of purity that can be achieved). 

Despite this relatively recent isolation, humans have been interacting with Boron compounds for centuries. Borax (sodium borate decahydrate) is one of these most recognizable compounds, and it can occur naturally when salt lakes evaporate; borax was used by Arabic goldsmiths and silversmiths all the way back in the eighth century. 

Boron

This early use is obvious in Boron’s name. It is derived from the Arabic word “buraq” meaning white. Technically, this term originally referred to Borax specifically and not Boron on whole, but since Borax was the earliest understanding of this member of the periodic table, it stands to reason that their names would be similar. 

Boron is rather abundant, but the largest source in the world occurs in the Mojave Desert in the United States. 100% isolated Boron has never been achieved, but high purity Boron (a single percent away from isolation) can be created by reducing the impure compounds with hydrogen on heated filaments. 

Less pure extractions can be done more simply with a wide range of Boron compounds—you can even complete this sort of extraction at home. 

From Fiberglass to Flare Guns

Boron and its compounds are important components in all sorts of everyday items, from fiberglass (like the kind people use for insulating their homes) and flare guns (Boron produces a green flare) to rocket fuel and soap. 

Boron, and more specifically Borax, is commonly used to create a strange fluid called Oobleck, a common science experiment among middle schoolers. The fluid can be created by mixing Borax with glue; it is rather unusual in that it is a fluid when it is poured, but becomes a solid under pressure. This is known as a non-Newtonian fluid. 

Perhaps more striking than any manufactured function of Boron is the fact that plants simply could not exist without it. Because Boron is integral to the cell health of all plants, it facilitates this organic life. In this sense, human beings would also not exist without Boron, as no plants translates to no food. 

Boron is the sort of ever-present material that gets taken for granted precisely because it is so abundant, but this complicated element does life on Earth all sorts of favors, even if they aren’t immediately visible.

Beryllium

Great things rarely come in neat packages, and while Beryllium has one of the widest range of uses on the periodic table, it is not without its drawbacks. It can be dazzlingly beautiful and helps make all sorts of products, but Beryllium may just cause some illness in the process if workers aren’t mindful. 

Terribly Tempting

Beryllium was originally known as Glucinium (from the Greek “glykys” meaning sweet) because of its characteristic sweet taste. However, scientists quickly discovered that Beryllium was actually toxic, and therefore naming it after its taste could invite unsafe ingestion. 

In fact, Beryllium’s isolated metallic form is so highly toxic that it is classified as a carcinogen. For this reason, there are very specific work codes which must be followed while working with Beryllium. Despite this high level of toxicity, Beryllium is still classified as a critical material for both the United States and Europe. 

Beryllium has all sorts of practical applications, so those who work with the element will have to maintain high safety standards, as it’s unlikely that it’ll stop being used any time soon. Those who help with the isolation process at industrial plants are, perhaps, the most at risk, as they can develop lung cancer after prolonged exposure without the proper precautions.

Beautiful but Deadly

Beryllium was first discovered in its oxide form in the late 1790s by Louis Nicholas Vauquelin; he recognized it in both Beryl and Emeralds (one of the precious forms of the material). The metallic Beryllium was first isolated about 30 years later, and its usefulness grew from there. 

Green Beryllium

Beryllium is found in about 30 different minerals, but most often in Beryl; it isn’t especially abundant. The U.S. is by far the largest producer of Beryllium. In fact, one mine in Utah accounts for more than 80% of the Beryllium excavated in the world. 

This element is one of the lightest of all metals, and also has one of the highest melting points. It has a high degree of elasticity and strong thermal conductivity; it’s also quite permeable to X-Rays and will produce neurons when subjected to alpha particles. All of this means that it’s a versatile material to combine with others. 

An Important Component

Beryllium is used in a number of different alloys to perform various functions. Due to its thermal conductivity and high melting point, it can be combined with copper or nickel to create welding tools and electrical contacts. These alloys are also commonly used for springs and gears.

These combinations are relatively light, and so they have also been used to create structural and mechanical components on spacecraft. Perhaps the most technically involved use of Beryllium is in nuclear reactors as a moderator. 

Beryllium and Bling

Beryl, the main mineral in which you can find Beryllium, comes in a few precious forms that are quite well known. Emerald, aquamarine, and morganite are all precious forms of Beryl, and therefore may contain (likely do contain) some amount of Beryllium.

Don’t worry—sporting one of these gems doesn’t mean that you will endure Beryllium’s toxic effects. The element occurs in very low abundance, and is not really generally dangerous when it hasn’t been isolated, so feel free to flash your precious stones without worry of impending illness. 

Beryllium can be as lovely as it is useful, but its many functions are met in equal measure by its potential for harm. So long as humans respect the dangers of Beryllium, they can keep innovating new functions of it.

Lithium

Lithium is unlike any other metal on the periodic table. Given that it has uses in manufacturing items like aircraft due to its unusual lightness, but that it has psychological benefits as well, Lithium may actually be one of the most versatile materials in existence. 

Toxic but Tolerable 

When isolated, Lithium is a metal, but that’s not how you’ll find it in nature. Instead, Lithium is present in almost all igneous rocks, as well as mineral spring water. On its own, Lithium has the lowest density of all metals, which makes it an ideal choice for crafting structures that must keep their weight low. 

Lithium is often combined with other metals to create alloys that are stronger, as it is a very soft metal—you can cut right through it with a knife. 

Oddly enough given its toxicity (in anything other than very low doses), Lithium has long been used for its medicinal properties; Lithium does not have a known biological function, but humans have certainly made the most out of this toxic metal. 

Crimson Fire and 60 Years

The element Lithium was unwittingly discovered in the 1790s by a Brazilian naturalist when he discovered the mineral Petalite in Sweden. When thrown into a fire, Petalite burns crimson due to the presence of Lithium; Lithium can also react quite violently with water when isolated, but no one realized it was a new element for another 20 or so years. 

In 1817, Johan Augustus Arfwedson realized that Petalite contained an unknown element. He tried (unsuccessfully) to isolate the metal, but wound up only isolating one of its salts. He named it Lithium for the Greek “lithos” meaning stone. 

Lithium was finally isolated in its metallic form in 1855 through the use of electrolysis. As stated before, Lithium doesn’t exist in its purest form naturally, and even though it is present in many rocks, it only makes up about .0007% of the Earth’s crust. 

The largest Lithium source is brine pools, and Chile has the largest extraction operation in the world. Of course, Lithium is also extracted all over the world, from Australia and China to the United States. 

Recharging in More Ways Than One

When alloyed with other metals, Lithium is a useful material for making aircraft. Common alloys are aluminum and copper, but perhaps its best known uses are in batteries and brains. 

If you have a smartphone or a laptop, you probably have lithium-ion battery in it. They key to Lithium’s success as a battery component is certainly its weight—it allows for rechargeable function without weighing down the device. As demand for these devices increases, there are some concerns that Lithium will become scarce, but this remains largely a contrived fear.

Tablets

Lithium Carbonate (Li2CO3) has also been found to treat Bipolar Disorder and depression when taken orally. This backs up a 2009 study that found Lithium in drinking water correlated with lower rates of suicide. Scientists believe that Lithium acts on the brain by inhibiting a protein that causes avoidance behavior, but the reason for its effects remain largely a mystery. 

Eat Your Vegetables, Drink Your Lithium

Given Lithium’s mood stabilizing effects, it should come as no surprise that it wasn’t always just a prescription. Around the same time that Coca-Cola was adding cocaine to their product, 7-Up (then called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon Lime Sodas) incorporated Lithium into there’s. 

The practice was banned in 1948, but 7-Up had already become one of the country’s favorite soft drinks. 

Lithium may be a little combative when combined with water or air on its own, but the metal has so many uses and benefits, that fact is easily forgiven.

Oxygen

Few things in life will ever feel as natural as the air you breathe, and that’s all thanks to Oxygen. While this gaseous element is always around you, that doesn’t mean it’s cool, calm, and collected; in fact, Oxygen is one of the most reactive members of the periodic table. 

Invisible but Abundant

Oxygen makes up about 21% of Earth’s atmosphere; its compounds make up almost half of the Earth’s crust. This means that, although you cannot see Oxygen, you’re always interacting with it in at least one way. Of course, the most obvious way that Oxygen affects humans is through their breathing. 

This element is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, but highly flammable. That’s why the proportion of Oxygen on Earth is so important—4% less and it would be very difficult for humans and animals to breathe, 4% more and all organic compounds would be highly flammable. This puts Earth in a proverbial sweet spot, with enough Oxygen to easily maintain life, but not so much that it becomes volatile. 

Oxygen began accumulating on Earth around 2 million years ago, as a buildup from plants performing photosynthesis. In this way, the presence of Oxygen on Earth is wonderfully cyclical: as animals respire, they produce carbon dioxide; as plants respire, they utilize that carbon dioxide and produce Oxygen. 

Though Oxygen is critical to maintaining life on Earth, it isn’t always delicate with that life. If you’ve ever noticed how fruit browns when its flesh is exposed, you’ve observed oxidation, and it’s occurring in your body as well. 

An Obvious Realization

Oxygen had been isolated prior to 1774, but never recognized as a distinct element until that year. Joseph Priestly is credited with having discovered Oxygen as its own element in that year by heating mercuric oxide; Carl Wilhelm Scheele separately completed the same experiment in the same year, but neither of them actually named this newly isolated material. 

Instead, the name Oxygen came when Antoine Lavoisier realized that oxygen was necessary in order to form any acid; therefore, the name Oxygen (which comes from the Greek “oxy” and “genes” meaning acid forming) was coined. 

Oxygen is present all around you: in the air, the water, the Earth, and even in your body. With this unparalleled abundance, it stands to reason that there are an unparalleled number of functions of Oxygen and its compounds. 

Some of the most common Oxygen combinations are likely ones with which you’re already familiar: water (H20), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2), and virtually limitless others that comprise some of the most commonly used products in the world. 

A Delicate Balance

Oxygen compounds are important for creating everything from cleaning and sanitation products to your average run of the mill plastics. The reality is that Oxygen is ubiquitous in daily life, so although there are plenty of applications that feature it more prominently than others, it’s worth assuming that whatever you’re touching is reacting with Oxygen on some level. 

On its own, Oxygen is important for maintaining life when a person’s lungs fail to function properly, or when the air becomes too thin (Oxygen is too spread out) to allow humans to breathe well. 

What’s more, as mentioned above, Earth is in a sort of Goldilocks zone in terms of Oxygen in the atmosphere. Less would be uninhabitable, and more would be unsafe. This fact is asserted even further when considering the fact that insects were able to grow to the size of raptors when the atmosphere contained 35% oxygen several hundred million years ago. 

Basically, Oxygen has a great deal of power, and as long as it remains in the right proportion, it’s a huge aid to life on Earth.