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NITROGEN

DOI: 10.1615/AtoZ.n.nitrogen

Nitrogen—(L. nitrum, Gr. nitron, native soda; genes, forming), N; atomic weight 14.0067; atomic number 7; melting point –209.86°C; boiling point –195.8°C; density 1.2506 g/1; specific gravity liquid 0.808 (–195.8°C), solid 1.026 (–252°C); valence 3 or 5.

Nitrogen was discovered by Daniel Rutherford in 1772, but Scheele, Cavendish, Priestley, and others about the same time studied "burnt or dephlogisticated air," as air without oxygen was then called. Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air, by volume. The atmosphere of Mars, by comparison, is 2.6% nitrogen. The estimated amount of this element in our atmosphere is more than 4000 billion tons. From this inexhaustible source it can be obtained by liquefaction and fractional distillation. Nitrogen molecules give the orange-red, blue-green, blue-violet, and deep violet shades to the aurora. The element is so inert that Lavoisier named it azote, meaning without life, yet its compounds are so active as to be most important in foods, poisons, fertilizers, and explosives. Nitrogen can also be easily prepared by heating a water solution of ammonium nitrite.

Nitrogen, as a gas, is colorless, odorless, and a generally inert element. As a liquid it is also colorless and odorless, and is similar in appearance to water. Two allotropic forms of solid nitrogen exist, with the transition from the α to the β form taking place at –237°C. When nitrogen is heated, it combines directly with magnesium, lithium, or calcium; when mixed with oxygen and subjected to electric sparks, it first forms nitric oxide (NO) and then the dioxide (NO2); when heated under pressure with a catalyst with hydrogen, ammonia is formed (Haber process). The ammonia thus formed is of the utmost importance as it is used in fertilizers, and it can be oxidized to nitric acid (Ostwald process).

The ammonia industry is the largest consumer of nitrogen. Large amounts of the gas are also used by the electronics industry, which uses the gas as a blanketing medium during production of such components as transistors, diodes, etc. Large quantities of nitrogen are used in annealing stainless steel and other steel mill products. The drug industry also uses large quantities. Nitrogen is used as a refrigerant both for the immersion freezing of food products and for transportation of foods. Liquid nitrogen is also used in missile work as a purge for components, insulators for space chambers, etc., and by the oil industry to build up great pressures in wells to force crude oil upward. Sodium and potassium nitrates are formed by the decomposition of organic matter with compounds of the metals present. In certain dry areas of the world these saltpeters are found in quantity. Ammonia, nitric acid, the nitrates, the five oxides (N2O, NO, N2O3, NO2, and N2O5), TNT, the cyanides, etc. are but a few of the important compounds.

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