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OXYGEN

DOI: 10.1615/AtoZ.o.oxygen

Oxygen—(GR. oxys, sharp, acid, and genes, forming; acid former), O; atomic weight (natural) 15.99994; atomic number 8; melting point –218.4°C; boiling point –182.962°C; density 1.429 g/T (0°C); specific gravity liquid 1.14 (–182.96°C); valence 2.

For many centuries, workers occasionally realized air was composed of more than one component. The behavior of oxygen and nitrogen as components of air led to the advancement of the phlogiston theory of combustion, which captured the minds of chemists for a century. Oxygen was prepared by several workers, including Bayen and Borch, but they did not know how to collect it, did not study its properties, and did not recognize it as an elementary substance. Priestley is generally credited with its discovery, although Scheele also discovered it independently.

Oxygen is the third most abundant element found in the sun, and it plays a part in the carbon-nitrogen cycle, one process thought to give the sun and stars their energy. Oxygen under excited conditions is responsible for the bright red and yellow-green colors of the aurora. Oxygen, as a gaseous element, forms 21% of the earth's atmosphere by volume from which it can be obtained by liquefaction and fractional distillation. The atmosphere of Mars contains about 0.15% oxygen. The element and its compounds make up 49.2%, by weight, of the earth's crust. About two-thirds of the human body and nine-tenths of water is oxygen.

In the laboratory oxygen can be prepared by the electrolysis of water or by heating potassium chlorate with manganese dioxide as a catalyst. The gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. The liquid and solid forms are a pale blue color and are strongly paramagnetic. Ozone (O3), a highly active aliotropic form of oxygen, is formed by the action of an electrical discharge or ultraviolet light on oxygen. Ozone's presence in the atmosphere (amounting to the equivalent of a layer 3 mm thick at ordinary pressures and temperatures) is of vital importance in preventing harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun from reaching the earth's surface. There has been recent concern that aerosols in the atmosphere may have a detrimental effect on this ozone layer. Ozone is toxic and exposure should not exceed 0.2mg/M3 (8-hr time-weighted average — 40-hr work week). Undiluted ozone has a bluish color. Liquid ozone is bluish black, and solid ozone is violet-black.

Oxygen is very reactive and capable of combining with most elements. It is a component of hundreds of thousands of organic compounds. It is essential for respiration of all plants and animals and for practically all combustion. In hospitals it is frequently used to aid respiration of patients. Its atomic weight was used as a standard of comparison for each of the other elements until 1961 when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry adopted carbon 12 as the new basis. Oxygen has eight isotopes. Natural oxygen is a mixture of three isotopes. Oxygen 18 occurs naturally, is stable, and is available commercially. Water (H2O with 1.5 percent O13) is also available. Oxygen enrichment of steel blast furnaces accounts for the greatest use of the gas. Large quantities are also used in making synthesis gas for ammonia and methanol, ethylene oxide, and for oxy-acetylene welding. Air separation plants produce about 99 percent of the gas, electrolysis plants about 1 percent.

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