Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Element of the Month: Nitrogen!

May's Element of the Month:

Atomic Mass: 14.0067 amu
Melting Point: -210 °C
Boiling Point: -196 °C

Nitrogen, like love, is all around. Really! It’s almost 4/5ths of your local atmosphere, although it’s colorless and odorless so it’s easy to miss. Indeed, if it wasn’t colorless or odorless, there wouldn’t be much point to the concepts of “sight” or “odor,” would there? All you’d ever see or smell would be the great swirling masses of Nitrogen. But it is in fact colorless and odorless, which is very conclusive proof – depending on whom you ask – that God is a very clever chap indeed, or that you belong to a species that evolved its sensory organs in a Nitrogen-based atmosphere, or both.

Now you might be tempted, as a creature who relentlessly craves Oxygen above all other things, to disrespect Nitrogen a little for taking up atmospheric space that might otherwise have more of the good stuff. But not so fast! Oxygen is incredibly reactive – hell, that’s why it’s such a big deal in the various chemical reactions that make you tick, pal – and it’s actually a good thing to have it cut with a fairly inert mixer like Nitrogen. It keeps all those things that we like to keep stable, like metal and exposed flesh, from bursting into flame at the drop of a hat.

The Centerfold!

Another reason to tip your hat to Nitrogen is that it’s one of the ingredients in amino acids, and therefore absolutely essential to Terrestrial life. You yourself, Gentle Reader, are 3% Nitrogen. There’s a tricky little business involved in the biology of Nitrogen, though, in that you are surrounded by it but you aren’t able to absorb it from the atmosphere. Don’t feel bad about it; neither can I. No animal can, and plants can’t either. “But wait!” you cry. “What about the ‘nitrogen-fixing plants,’ legumes, clover and the like, that farmers grow to replenish nitrogen in their soil, in the unlikely event that they aren’t just dumping industrially-fixed nitrogen on it?” Excellent question. Turns out, though, that it's not the plants themselves that fix the nitrogen – which is to say, convert it from an atmospheric form to a biologically useful form.  It's bacteria that hang out in those plants’ roots that are doing the heavy lifting. Thanks, root bacteria!

As an incredibly common element, Nitrogen is in a zillion compounds that are of use to the human community, from fertilizers through laughing gas to rocket propellant. Nitrogen qua Nitrogen, though, is mostly just used when something needs to be packaged in an inert gas. Would you want to package your food, or your explosives, in eager-beaver Oxygen? Of course not. You'd want to package it in laid-back Nitrogen, which will keep to its own affairs and not start nosing into other people’s compounds.

Daniel Rutherford, one of those brilliant Scottish polymath dudes, is credited with discovering Nitrogen in 1772.  Except, since what he thought he’d done is removed all of the phlogiston from elemental air, he probably shouldn’t be.


Jennifer said...

June element of the month: phlogiston!

gl. said...

yes, what jennifer said. :)

Michael5000 said...

No, no, they're all picked out in random order! June is Einsteinium. I can't remember when Plogiston comes in the batting order.

Rebel said...

I rather like nitrogen, and the nitrogen fixing bacteria that bring it into the life cycle. Go nitrogen!