Neon is a chemical element with the symbol Ne and atomic number 10. It is a noble gas. Neon is a colorless, odorless, inert monatomic gas under standard conditions, with about two-thirds the density of air. It was discovered (along with krypton and xenon) in 1898 as one of the three residual rare inert elements remaining in dry air, after nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide were removed. Neon was the second of these three rare gases to be discovered and was immediately recognized as a new element from its bright red emission spectrum. The name neon is derived from the Greek word, νέον, neuter singular form of νέος (neos), meaning new. Neon is chemically inert, and no uncharged neon compounds are known. The compounds of neon currently known include ionic molecules, molecules held together by van der Waals forces and clathrates.
During cosmic nucleogenesis of the elements, large amounts of neon are built up from the alpha-capture fusion process in stars. Although neon is a very common element in the universe and solar system (it is fifth in cosmic abundance after hydrogen, helium, oxygen and carbon), it is rare on Earth. It composes about 18.2 ppm of air by volume (this is about the same as the molecular or mole fraction) and a smaller fraction in Earth’s crust. The reason for neon’s relative scarcity on Earth and the inner (terrestrial) planets is that neon is highly volatile and forms no compounds to fix it to solids. As a result, it escaped from the planetesimals under the warmth of the newly ignited Sun in the early Solar System. Even the outer atmosphere of Jupiter is somewhat depleted of neon, although for a different reason.
Neon gives a distinct reddish-orange glow when used in low-voltage neon glow lamps, high-voltage discharge tubes and neon advertising signs. The red emission line from neon also causes the well known red light of helium–neon lasers. Neon is used in some plasma tube and refrigerant applications but has few other commercial uses. It is commercially extracted by the fractional distillation of liquid air. Since air is the only source, it is considerably more expensive than helium.
Neon was discovered in 1898 by the British chemists Sir William Ramsay (1852–1916) and Morris W. Travers (1872–1961) in London. Neon was discovered when Ramsay chilled a sample of air until it became a liquid, then warmed the liquid and captured the gases as they boiled off. The gases nitrogen, oxygen, and argon had been identified, but the remaining gases were isolated in roughly their order of abundance, in a six-week period beginning at the end of May 1898. First to be identified was krypton. The next, after krypton had been removed, was a gas which gave a brilliant red light under spectroscopic discharge. This gas, identified in June, was named “neon”, the Greek analogue of the Latin novum (‘new’) suggested by Ramsay’s son. The characteristic brilliant red-orange color emitted by gaseous neon when excited electrically was noted immediately. Travers later wrote: “the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.”
A second gas was also reported along with neon, having approximately the same density as argon but with a different spectrum – Ramsay and Travers named it metargon. However, subsequent spectroscopic analysis revealed it to be argon contaminated with carbon monoxide. Finally, the same team discovered xenon by the same process, in September 1898.
Neon’s scarcity precluded its prompt application for lighting along the lines of Moore tubes, which used nitrogen and which were commercialized in the early 1900s. After 1902, Georges Claude’s company Air Liquide produced industrial quantities of neon as a byproduct of his air-liquefaction business. In December 1910 Claude demonstrated modern neon lighting based on a sealed tube of neon. Claude tried briefly to sell neon tubes for indoor domestic lighting, due to their intensity, but the market failed because homeowners objected to the color. In 1912, Claude’s associate began selling neon discharge tubes as eye-catching advertising signs and was instantly more successful. Neon tubes were introduced to the U.S. in 1923 with two large neon signs bought by a Los Angeles Packard car dealership. The glow and arresting red color made neon advertising completely different from the competition. The intense color and vibrancy of neon equated with American society at the time, suggesting a “century of progress” and transforming cities into sensational new environments filled with radiating advertisements and “electro-graphic architecture”.
Neon played a role in the basic understanding of the nature of atoms in 1913, when J. J. Thomson, as part of his exploration into the composition of canal rays, channeled streams of neon ions through a magnetic and an electric field and measured the deflection of the streams with a photographic plate. Thomson observed two separate patches of light on the photographic plate (see image), which suggested two different parabolas of deflection. Thomson eventually concluded that some of the atoms in the neon gas were of higher mass than the rest. Though not understood at the time by Thomson, this was the first discovery of isotopes of stable atoms. Thomson’s device was a crude version of the instrument we now term a mass spectrometer.
Stable isotopes of neon are produced in stars. Neon’s most abundant isotope 20Ne (90.48%) is created by the nuclear fusion of carbon and carbon in the carbon-burning process of stellar nucleosynthesis. This requires temperatures above 500 megakelvins, which occur in the cores of stars of more than 8 solar masses.
Neon is abundant on a universal scale; it is the fifth most abundant chemical element in the universe by mass, after hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon (see chemical element). Its relative rarity on Earth, like that of helium, is due to its relative lightness, high vapor pressure at very low temperatures, and chemical inertness, all properties which tend to keep it from being trapped in the condensing gas and dust clouds that formed the smaller and warmer solid planets like Earth.
Neon is monatomic, making it lighter than the molecules of diatomic nitrogen and oxygen which form the bulk of Earth’s atmosphere; a balloon filled with neon will rise in air, albeit more slowly than a helium balloon.
Neon’s abundance in the universe is about 1 part in 750; in the Sun and presumably in the proto-solar system nebula, about 1 part in 600. The Galileo spacecraft atmospheric entry probe found that even in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, the abundance of neon is reduced (depleted) by about a factor of 10, to a level of 1 part in 6,000 by mass. This may indicate that even the ice-planetesimals which brought neon into Jupiter from the outer solar system, formed in a region which was too warm to retain the neon atmospheric component (abundances of heavier inert gases on Jupiter are several times that found in the Sun).
Neon comprises 1 part in 55,000 in the Earth’s atmosphere, or 18.2 ppm by volume (this is about the same as the molecule or mole fraction), or 1 part in 79,000 of air by mass. It comprises a smaller fraction in the crust. It is industrially produced by cryogenic fractional distillation of liquefied air.
On 17 August 2015, based on studies with the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft, NASA scientists reported the detection of neon in the exosphere of the moon.
Neon can be obtained as a by-product of air separation using the Linde process. After separation of water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, the noble gases boiling at higher temperatures and the majority of nitrogen, a gas mixture remains which consists of 35 % neon, helium, hydrogen and about 50 % nitrogen (in each case in molar proportions). This can be separated in different ways, so that in the end the pure gases neon and helium are obtained. One possibility is to separate the gases by condensation at different boiling points and by using the Joule-Thomson effect. After separation of the hydrogen via catalytic reaction with added oxygen and removal of the water, the nitrogen is first liquefied at 30 bar and 66 K and then separated. After removal of the remaining nitrogen by adsorption on silica gel, a gas mixture of about 76 % neon and 24 % helium remains. This is first compressed to 180 bar at room temperature and cooled down in stages to 50 K. During expansion to 25 bar and then to 1.5 bar, the neon condenses while helium remains gaseous. A fine separation is then carried out by rectification.
An alternative is adsorption. For this purpose, the neon is adsorbed onto a carrier material at 5 bar and 67 K after separation of the nitrogen. This material releases the neon at 3 bar, so that it can be separated from the helium. To achieve a higher purity, the neon is adsorbed twice in a row.
Neon is often used in signs and produces an unmistakable bright reddish-orange light. Although tube lights with other colors are often called “neon”, they use different noble gases or varied colors of fluorescent lighting.
Neon is used in vacuum tubes, high-voltage indicators, lightning arresters, wavemeter tubes, television tubes, and helium–neon lasers. Liquefied neon is commercially used as a cryogenic refrigerant in applications not requiring the lower temperature range attainable with more extreme liquid-helium refrigeration.
Neon, as liquid or gas, is relatively expensive – for small quantities, the price of liquid neon can be more than 55 times that of liquid helium. Driving neon’s expense is the rarity of neon, which, unlike helium, can only be obtained from air.
The triple point temperature of neon (24.5561 K) is a defining fixed point in the International Temperature Scale of 1990.
Like the other noble gases, neon has no biological significance due to its inertness and is also not toxic. In higher concentrations it has a suffocating effect by displacing oxygen At pressures of more than 110 bar it has a narcotic effect.