|Group||15||Melting point||-210.0 oC, -346.0 oF, 63.2 K|
|Period||2||Boiling point||-195.795 oC, -320.431 oF, 77.355 K|
|Block||p||Density (g cm-3)||0.001145|
|Atomic number||7||Relative atomic mass||14.007|
|State at 20°C||Gas||Key isotopes||14N|
|Electron configuration||[He] 2s22p3||CAS number||7727-37-9|
|ChemSpider ID||20473555||ChemSpider is a free chemical structure database|
The wheat sheaf symbol and lightning reflect the importance of nitrogen to living things. Nitrogen is important for plant growth and can be ‘fixed’ by lightning or added to soils in fertilisers.
A colourless, odourless gas.
Nitrogen is important to the chemical industry. It is used to make fertilisers, nitric acid, nylon, dyes and explosives. To make these products, nitrogen must first be reacted with hydrogen to produce ammonia. This is done by the Haber process. 150 million tonnes of ammonia are produced in this way every year.
Nitrogen gas is also used to provide an unreactive atmosphere. It is used in this way to preserve foods, and in the electronics industry during the production of transistors and diodes. Large quantities of nitrogen are used in annealing stainless steel and other steel mill products. Annealing is a heat treatment that makes steel easier to work.
Liquid nitrogen is often used as a refrigerant. It is used for storing sperm, eggs and other cells for medical research and reproductive technology. It is also used to rapidly freeze foods, helping them to maintain moisture, colour, flavour and texture.
Nitrogen is cycled naturally by living organisms through the ‘nitrogen cycle’. It is taken up by green plants and algae as nitrates, and used to build up the bases needed to construct DNA, RNA and all amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
Animals obtain their nitrogen by consuming other living things. They digest the proteins and DNA into their constituent bases and amino acids, reforming them for their own use.
Microbes in the soil convert the nitrogen compounds back to nitrates for the plants to re-use. The nitrate supply is also replenished by nitrogen-fixing bacteria that ‘fix’ nitrogen directly from the atmosphere.
Crop yields can be greatly increased by adding chemical fertilisers to the soil, manufactured from ammonia. If used carelessly the fertiliser can leach out of the soil into rivers and lakes, causing algae to grow rapidly. This can block out light preventing photosynthesis. The dissolved oxygen soon gets used up and the river or lake dies.
Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air, by volume. It is obtained by the distillation of liquid air. Around 45 million tonnes are extracted each year. It is found, as compounds, in all living things and hence also in coal and other fossil fuels.
Nitrogen in the form of ammonium chloride, NH4Cl, was known to the alchemists as sal ammonia. It was manufactured in Egypt by heating a mixture of dung, salt and urine. Nitrogen gas itself was obtained in the 1760s by both Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley and they did this by removing the oxygen from air. They noted it extinguished a lighted candle and that a mouse breathing it would soon die. Neither man deduced that it was an element. The first person to suggest this was a young student Daniel Rutherford in his doctorate thesis of September 1772 at Edinburgh, Scotland.
|Listen to Nitrogen Podcast|
Chemistry in its Element - Nitrogen
You're listening to Chemistry in its element brought to you by Chemistry World, the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
Hello! This week, we're blowing up airbags, asphyxiating animals and getting to the bottom of gun powder because Cambridge chemist, Peter Wothers has been probing the history of Nitrogen.
Nitrogen gas makes up about 80% of the air we breathe. It's by far the most abundant element in its group in the periodic table and yet it is the last member of its family to be discovered. The other elements in its group Phosphorus, Arsenic, Antimony and Bismuth, had all been discovered, used and abused at least a 100 years before Nitrogen was known about. It wasn't really until the 18th Century that people focussed their attention on the chemistry of the air and the preparation properties of different gases. We can only really make sense of the discovery of Nitrogen by also noting the discovery of some of these other gases. Robert Boyle noted in 1670 that when acid was added to Iron filings, the mixture grew very hot and belched up copious and stinking fumes. So inflammable it was that upon the approach of a lighted candle to it, it would readily enough take fire and burn with a bluish and somewhat greenish flame. Hydrogen was more carefully prepared and collected by the brilliant but reclusive millionaire scientist, Henry Cavendish about a 100 years later. Cavendish called the gas inflammable air from the metals in recognition of this most striking property. He also studied the gas, we know call, Carbon dioxide, which had first been prepared by the Scottish chemist, Joseph Black in the 1750s. Black called Carbon dioxide, fixed air, since it was thought to be locked up or fixed in certain minerals such as limestone. It could be released from its stony prison by the action of heat or acids. Carbon dioxide was also known by the name, mephitic air, the word mephitic meaning noxious or poisonous. This name obviously came from its property of destroying life, since it rapidly suffocates any animals immersed in it. This is where the confusion with Nitrogen gas begins. Since pure Nitrogen gas is also suffocating to animals. If the Oxygen in an enclosed quantity of air is used up, either by burning a candle in it or by confining an animal, most of the Oxygen is converted to Carbon dioxide gas which mixes with the Nitrogen gas present in the air. This noxious mixture no longer supports life and so was called mephitic. The crucial experiment in the discovery of Nitrogen was when it was realized that there are at least two different kinds of suffocating gases in this mephitic air. This was done by passing the mixture of gases through a solution of alkali, which absorbed the Carbon dioxide but left behind the Nitrogen gas. Cavendish prepared Nitrogen gas by this means. He passed air back and forth over heated charcoal which converted the Oxygen in the air to Carbon dioxide. The Carbon dioxide was then dissolved in alkali leaving behind the inert Nitrogen gas, which he correctly observed was slightly less dense than common air. Unfortunately, Cavendish didn't publish his findings. He just communicated them in a letter to fellow scientist, Joseph Priestley, one of the discoverers of Oxygen gas. Consequently, the discovery of Nitrogen is usually accredited to one of Joseph Black's students, the Scottish scientist, Daniel Rutherford, who's also the uncle of the novelist and poet, Sir. Walter Scott. Rutherford published his findings, which was similar to those of Cavendish in his doctoral thesis entitled, "An Inaugural Dissertation on the Air called Fixed or Mephitic" in 1772. So what about the name, Nitrogen? In the late 1780s, chemical nomenclature underwent a major revolution under the guidance of the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier. It was he and his colleagues, who suggested many of the names we still use today including the word Hydrogen, which comes from the Greek meaning water former and Oxygen from the Greek for acid producer, since Lavoisier mistakenly thought that Oxygen was the key component of all acids. However, in his list of the then known elements, Lavoisier included the term azote or azotic gas for what we now call Nitrogen. This again stems from Greek words, this time meaning the absence of life, once again focussing on its mephitic quality. It was not long before it was pointed out that there are many mephitic gases, in fact no gas other than oxygen can support life. The name Nitrogen was therefore proposed from the observation, again first made by Cavendish that if the gases sparked with Oxygen, and then the resulting Nitrogen dioxide gases passed through alkali, nitre, otherwise known as saltpetre or potassium nitrate is formed. The word Nitrogen therefore means nitre former. The derivatives of the word, azote still survive today. The compound used to explosively fill car air bags with gas is sodium azide, a compound of just Sodium and Nitrogen. When triggered this compound explosively decomposes freeing the Nitrogen gas, which inflates the bags, far from destroying life, this azotic compound has been responsible for saving thousands.
Cambridge University's Peter Wothers telling the story of the discovery of Nitrogen. Next time on Chemistry in its element, how chemists like Mendeleev got to groups with both the known and the unknown.
While other scientists had tried to create ways of ordering the known elements, Mendeleev created the system that could predict the existence of elements, not yet discovered. When he presented the table to the world in 1869, it contained four prominent gaps. One of these was just below Manganese and Mendeleev predicted that element with atomic weight 43 would be found to fill that gap, but it was not until 1937 that a group of Italian scientists finally found the missing element, which they named Technetium
And you can hear Mark Peplow telling Technetium's tale in next week's edition of Chemistry in its element. I'm Chris Smith, thank you for listening. See you next time.
Chemistry in its elementis brought to you by the Royal Society of Chemistry and produced by thenakedscientists dot com. There's more information and other episodes of Chemistry in its element on our web site at chemistryworld dot org forward slash elements.
© Murray Robertson 2011.
W. M. Haynes, ed., CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, CRC Press/Taylor and Francis, Boca Raton, FL, 95th Edition, Internet Version 2015, accessed December 2014.
Tables of Physical & Chemical Constants, Kaye & Laby Online, 16th edition, 1995. Version 1.0 (2005), accessed December 2014.
J. S. Coursey, D. J. Schwab, J.J. Tsai, and R. A. Dragoset, Atomic Weights and Isotopic Compositions(version 3.0), 2010, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, accessed December 2014.
T. L. Cottrell, The Strengths of Chemical Bonds, Butterworth, London, 1954.
Uses and properties
John Emsley, Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements, Oxford University Press, New York, 2nd Edition, 2011.
Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - Office of Science Education, It’s Elemental - The Periodic Table of Elements, accessed December 2014.
Periodic Table of Videos, accessed December 2014.
Supply risk data
Derived in part from material provided by the British Geological Survey © NERC.
© John Emsley 2012.
Produced by The Naked Scientists.
Periodic Table of Videos
Created by video journalist Brady Haran working with chemists at The University of Nottingham.