Nitrogen is the chemical element with the symbol N and atomic number 7. It was first discovered and isolated by Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford in 1772. Although Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Henry Cavendish had independently done so at about the same time, Rutherford is generally accorded the credit because his work was published first. The name nitrogène was suggested by French chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal in 1790, when it was found that nitrogen was present in nitric acid and nitrates. Antoine Lavoisier suggested instead the name azote, from the Greek ἀζωτικός “no life”, as it is an asphyxiant gas; this name is instead used in many languages, such as French, Russian, Romanian and Turkish, and appears in the English names of some nitrogen compounds such as hydrazine, azides and azo compounds.
Nitrogen is the lightest member of group 15 of the periodic table, often called the pnictogens. The name comes from the Greek πνίγειν “to choke”, directly referencing nitrogen’s asphyxiating properties. It is a common element in the universe, estimated at about seventh in total abundance in the Milky Way and the Solar System. At standard temperature and pressure, two atoms of the element bind to form dinitrogen, a colourless and odorless diatomic gas with the formula N2. Dinitrogen forms about 78% of Earth’s atmosphere, making it the most abundant uncombined element. Nitrogen occurs in all organisms, primarily in amino acids (and thus proteins), in the nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and in the energy transfer molecule adenosine triphosphate. The human body contains about 3% nitrogen by mass, the fourth most abundant element in the body after oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen. The nitrogen cycle describes movement of the element from the air, into the biosphere and organic compounds, then back into the atmosphere.
Many industrially important compounds, such as ammonia, nitric acid, organic nitrates (propellants and explosives), and cyanides, contain nitrogen. The extremely strong triple bond in elemental nitrogen (N≡N), the second strongest bond in any diatomic molecule after carbon monoxide (CO), dominates nitrogen chemistry. This causes difficulty for both organisms and industry in converting N2 into useful compounds, but at the same time means that burning, exploding, or decomposing nitrogen compounds to form nitrogen gas releases large amounts of often useful energy. Synthetically produced ammonia and nitrates are key industrial fertilisers, and fertiliser nitrates are key pollutants in the eutrophication of water systems.
Apart from its use in fertilisers and energy-stores, nitrogen is a constituent of organic compounds as diverse as Kevlar used in high-strength fabric and cyanoacrylate used in superglue. Nitrogen is a constituent of every major pharmacological drug class, including antibiotics. Many drugs are mimics or prodrugs of natural nitrogen-containing signal molecules: for example, the organic nitrates nitroglycerin and nitroprusside control blood pressure by metabolizing into nitric oxide. Many notable nitrogen-containing drugs, such as the natural caffeine and morphine or the synthetic amphetamines, act on receptors of animal neurotransmitters.
Nitrogen compounds have a very long history, ammonium chloride having been known to Herodotus. They were well known by the Middle Ages. Alchemists knew nitric acid as aqua fortis (strong water), as well as other nitrogen compounds such as ammonium salts and nitrate salts. The mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids was known as aqua regia (royal water), celebrated for its ability to dissolve gold, the king of metals.
The discovery of nitrogen is attributed to the Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford in 1772, who called it noxious air. Though he did not recognise it as an entirely different chemical substance, he clearly distinguished it from Joseph Black’s “fixed air”, or carbon dioxide. The fact that there was a component of air that does not support combustion was clear to Rutherford, although he was not aware that it was an element. Nitrogen was also studied at about the same time by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Henry Cavendish, and Joseph Priestley, who referred to it as burnt air or phlogisticated air. Nitrogen gas was inert enough that Antoine Lavoisier referred to it as “mephitic air” or azote, from the Greek word άζωτικός (azotikos), “no life”. In an atmosphere of pure nitrogen, animals died and flames were extinguished. Though Lavoisier’s name was not accepted in English, since it was pointed out that almost all gases (indeed, with the sole exception of oxygen) are mephitic, it is used in many languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Albanian, Turkish, etc.; the German Stickstoff similarly refers to the same characteristic, viz. ersticken “to choke or suffocate”) and still remains in English in the common names of many nitrogen compounds, such as hydrazine and compounds of the azide ion. Finally, it led to the name “pnictogens” for the group headed by nitrogen, from the Greek πνίγειν “to choke”.
The English word nitrogen (1794) entered the language from the French nitrogène, coined in 1790 by French chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756–1832), from the French nitre (potassium nitrate, also called saltpeter) and the French suffix -gène, “producing”, from the Greek -γενής (-genes, “begotten”). Chaptal’s meaning was that nitrogen is the essential part of nitric acid, which in turn was produced from nitre. In earlier times, niter had been confused with Egyptian “natron” (sodium carbonate) – called νίτρον (nitron) in Greek – which, despite the name, contained no nitrate.
The earliest military, industrial, and agricultural applications of nitrogen compounds used saltpeter (sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate), most notably in gunpowder, and later as fertiliser. In 1910, Lord Rayleigh discovered that an electrical discharge in nitrogen gas produced “active nitrogen”, a monatomic allotrope of nitrogen. The “whirling cloud of brilliant yellow light” produced by his apparatus reacted with mercury to produce explosive mercury nitride.
For a long time, sources of nitrogen compounds were limited. Natural sources originated either from biology or deposits of nitrates produced by atmospheric reactions. Nitrogen fixation by industrial processes like the Frank–Caro process (1895–1899) and Haber–Bosch process (1908–1913) eased this shortage of nitrogen compounds, to the extent that half of global food production (see Applications) now relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. At the same time, use of the Ostwald process (1902) to produce nitrates from industrial nitrogen fixation allowed the large-scale industrial production of nitrates as feedstock in the manufacture of explosives in the World Wars of the 20th century.
Nitrogen is the most common pure element in the earth, making up 78.1% of the entire volume of the atmosphere. Despite this, it is not very abundant in Earth’s crust, making up only 19 parts per million of this, on par with niobium, gallium, and lithium. The only important nitrogen minerals are nitre (potassium nitrate, saltpetre) and sodanitre (sodium nitrate, Chilean saltpetre). However, these have not been an important source of nitrates since the 1920s, when the industrial synthesis of ammonia and nitric acid became common.
Nitrogen compounds constantly interchange between the atmosphere and living organisms. Nitrogen must first be processed, or “fixed”, into a plant-usable form, usually ammonia. Some nitrogen fixation is done by lightning strikes producing the nitrogen oxides, but most is done by diazotrophic bacteria through enzymes known as nitrogenases (although today industrial nitrogen fixation to ammonia is also significant). When the ammonia is taken up by plants, it is used to synthesise proteins. These plants are then digested by animals who use the nitrogen compounds to synthesise their own proteins and excrete nitrogen–bearing waste. Finally, these organisms die and decompose, undergoing bacterial and environmental oxidation and denitrification, returning free dinitrogen to the atmosphere. Industrial nitrogen fixation by the Haber process is mostly used as fertiliser, although excess nitrogen–bearing waste, when leached, leads to eutrophication of freshwater and the creation of marine dead zones, as nitrogen-driven bacterial growth depletes water oxygen to the point that all higher organisms die. Furthermore, nitrous oxide, which is produced during denitrification, attacks the atmospheric ozone layer.
Many saltwater fish manufacture large amounts of trimethylamine oxide to protect them from the high osmotic effects of their environment; conversion of this compound to dimethylamine is responsible for the early odour in unfresh saltwater fish. In animals, free radical nitric oxide (derived from an amino acid), serves as an important regulatory molecule for circulation.
Nitric oxide’s rapid reaction with water in animals results in production of its metabolite nitrite. Animal metabolism of nitrogen in proteins, in general, results in excretion of urea, while animal metabolism of nucleic acids results in excretion of urea and uric acid. The characteristic odour of animal flesh decay is caused by the creation of long-chain, nitrogen-containing amines, such as putrescine and cadaverine, which are breakdown products of the amino acids ornithine and lysine, respectively, in decaying proteins.
Nitrogen gas is an industrial gas produced by the fractional distillation of liquid air, or by mechanical means using gaseous air (pressurised reverse osmosis membrane or pressure swing adsorption). Nitrogen gas generators using membranes or pressure swing adsorption (PSA) are typically more cost and energy efficient than bulk delivered nitrogen. Commercial nitrogen is often a byproduct of air-processing for industrial concentration of oxygen for steelmaking and other purposes. When supplied compressed in cylinders it is often called OFN (oxygen-free nitrogen). Commercial-grade nitrogen already contains at most 20 ppm oxygen, and specially purified grades containing at most 2 ppm oxygen and 10 ppm argon are also available.
In a chemical laboratory, it is prepared by treating an aqueous solution of ammonium chloride with sodium nitrite.
NH4Cl + NaNO2 → N2 + NaCl + 2 H2O
Small amounts of the impurities NO and HNO3 are also formed in this reaction. The impurities can be removed by passing the gas through aqueous sulfuric acid containing potassium dichromate. Very pure nitrogen can be prepared by the thermal decomposition of barium azide or sodium azide.
2 NaN3 → 2 Na + 3 N2
The applications of nitrogen compounds are naturally extremely widely varied due to the huge size of this class: hence, only applications of pure nitrogen itself will be considered here. Two-thirds of nitrogen produced by industry is sold as the gas and the remaining one-third as the liquid. The gas is mostly used as an inert atmosphere whenever the oxygen in the air would pose a fire, explosion, or oxidising hazard. Some examples include:
- As a modified atmosphere, pure or mixed with carbon dioxide, to nitrogenate and preserve the freshness of packaged or bulk foods (by delaying rancidity and other forms of oxidative damage). Pure nitrogen as food additive is labeled in the European Union with the E number E941.
- In incandescent light bulbs as an inexpensive alternative to argon.
- In inmate execution as an alternative to lethal injection.
- In fire suppression systems for Information technology (IT) equipment.
- In the manufacture of stainless steel.
- In the case-hardening of steel by nitriding.
- In some aircraft fuel systems to reduce fire hazard (see inerting system).
- To inflate race car and aircraft tires, reducing the problems of inconsistent expansion and contraction caused by moisture and oxygen in natural air.
Nitrogen is commonly used during sample preparation in chemical analysis. It is used to concentrate and reduce the volume of liquid samples. Directing a pressurised stream of nitrogen gas perpendicular to the surface of the liquid causes the solvent to evaporate while leaving the solute(s) and un-evaporated solvent behind.
Nitrogen can be used as a replacement, or in combination with, carbon dioxide to pressurise kegs of some beers, particularly stouts and British ales, due to the smaller bubbles it produces, which makes the dispensed beer smoother and headier. A pressure-sensitive nitrogen capsule known commonly as a “widget” allows nitrogen-charged beers to be packaged in cans and bottles. Nitrogen tanks are also replacing carbon dioxide as the main power source for paintball guns. Nitrogen must be kept at higher pressure than CO2, making N2 tanks heavier and more expensive. Nitrogen gas has become the inert gas of choice for inert gas asphyxiation, and is under consideration as a replacement for lethal injection in Oklahoma. Nitrogen gas, formed from the decomposition of sodium azide, is used for the inflation of airbags.
Liquid nitrogen is a cryogenic liquid. When insulated in proper containers such as Dewar flasks, it can be transported without much evaporative loss.
Like dry ice, the main use of liquid nitrogen is as a refrigerant. Among other things, it is used in the cryopreservation of blood, reproductive cells (sperm and egg), and other biological samples and materials. It is used in the clinical setting in cryotherapy to remove cysts and warts on the skin. It is used in cold traps for certain laboratory equipment and to cool infrared detectors or X-ray detectors. It has also been used to cool central processing units and other devices in computers that are overclocked, and that produce more heat than during normal operation. Other uses include freeze-grinding and machining materials that are soft or rubbery at room temperature, shrink-fitting and assembling engineering components, and more generally to attain very low temperatures whenever necessary (around −200 °C). Because of its low cost, liquid nitrogen is also often used when such low temperatures are not strictly necessary, such as refrigeration of food, freeze-branding livestock, freezing pipes to halt flow when valves are not present, and consolidating unstable soil by freezing whenever excavation is going on underneath.
Liquid nitrogen is extensively used in vacuum pump systems.
Although nitrogen is non-toxic, when released into an enclosed space it can displace oxygen, and therefore presents an asphyxiation hazard. This may happen with few warning symptoms, since the human carotid body is a relatively poor and slow low-oxygen (hypoxia) sensing system. An example occurred shortly before the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission on March 19, 1981, when two technicians died from asphyxiation after they walked into a space located in the Space Shuttle’s mobile launcher platform that was pressurised with pure nitrogen as a precaution against fire.
When inhaled at high partial pressures (more than about 4 bar, encountered at depths below about 30 m in scuba diving), nitrogen is an anesthetic agent, causing nitrogen narcosis, a temporary state of mental impairment similar to nitrous oxide intoxication.
Nitrogen dissolves in the blood and body fats. Rapid decompression (as when divers ascend too quickly or astronauts decompress too quickly from cabin pressure to spacesuit pressure) can lead to a potentially fatal condition called decompression sickness (formerly known as caisson sickness or the bends), when nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream, nerves, joints, and other sensitive or vital areas. Bubbles from other “inert” gases (gases other than carbon dioxide and oxygen) cause the same effects, so replacement of nitrogen in breathing gases may prevent nitrogen narcosis, but does not prevent decompression sickness.
As a cryogenic liquid, liquid nitrogen can be dangerous by causing cold burns on contact, although the Leidenfrost effect provides protection for very short exposure (about one second). Ingestion of liquid nitrogen can cause severe internal damage. For example, in 2012, a young woman in England had to have her stomach removed after ingesting a cocktail made with liquid nitrogen.
Because the liquid-to-gas expansion ratio of nitrogen is 1:694 at 20 °C, a tremendous amount of force can be generated if liquid nitrogen is rapidly vaporised in an enclosed space. In an incident on January 12, 2006 at Texas A&M University, the pressure-relief devices of a tank of liquid nitrogen were malfunctioning and later sealed. As a result of the subsequent pressure buildup, the tank failed catastrophically. The force of the explosion was sufficient to propel the tank through the ceiling immediately above it, shatter a reinforced concrete beam immediately below it, and blow the walls of the laboratory 0.1–0.2 m off their foundations.
Liquid nitrogen readily evaporates to form gaseous nitrogen, and hence the precautions associated with gaseous nitrogen also apply to liquid nitrogen. For example, oxygen sensors are sometimes used as a safety precaution when working with liquid nitrogen to alert workers of gas spills into a confined space.
Vessels containing liquid nitrogen can condense oxygen from air. The liquid in such a vessel becomes increasingly enriched in oxygen (boiling point −183 °C, higher than that of nitrogen) as the nitrogen evaporates, and can cause violent oxidation of organic material.