Elements for Kids
Nitrogen is the first element in column 15 of the periodic table. It is part of the group of "other" nonmetal elements. Nitrogen atoms have seven electrons and 7 protons with five electrons in the outer shell.
Nitrogen plays an important role in the life of plants and animals on Earth through the nitrogen cycle. Click here to learn more about the nitrogen cycle.
Characteristics and Properties
Under standard conditions nitrogen is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas. It forms diatomic molecules, which means that there are two nitrogen atoms per molecule in nitrogen gas (N2). In this configuration nitrogen is very inert, meaning that it doesn't typically react with other compounds.
Nitrogen becomes a liquid at -210.00 degrees C. Liquid nitrogen looks like water.
Common compounds with nitrogen atoms include ammonia (NH3), nitrous oxide (N2O), nitrites, and nitrates. Nitrogen is also found in organic compounds such as amines, amides, and nitro groups.
Where is nitrogen found on Earth?
Although we often refer to the air we breathe as "oxygen", the most common element in our air is nitrogen. The Earth's atmosphere is 78% nitrogen gas or N2.
Even though there is so much nitrogen in the air, there is very little in the Earth's crust. It can be found in some fairly rare minerals such as saltpeter.
Nitrogen can also be found in all living organisms on Earth including plants and animals. It plays an important role in proteins and nucleic acids.
How is nitrogen used today?
The primary industrial use of nitrogen is to make ammonia. The process by which nitrogen is used to make ammonia is called the Haber process where nitrogen and hydrogen are combined to make NH3 (ammonia). Ammonia is then used to create fertilizers, nitric acid, and explosives.
Many explosives contain nitrogen such as TNT, nitroglycerin, and gun powder.
Some applications for nitrogen gas include the preservation of fresh foods, the manufacturing of stainless steel, reducing fire hazards, and as part of the gas in incandescent light bulbs.
Liquid nitrogen is used as a refrigerant to keep things cold. It is also used in the cryopreservation of biological samples and blood. Scientists often use liquid nitrogen when performing low temperature science experiments.
How was it discovered?
Nitrogen was first isolated by Scottish chemist Daniel Rutherford in 1772. He called the gas "noxious air."
Where did nitrogen get its name?
Nitrogen was named by French chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal in 1790. He named it after the mineral niter when he found that niter contained the gas. Niter is also called saltpeter or potassium nitrate.
There are two stable isotopes of nitrogen: nitrogen-14 and nitrogen-15. Over 99% of the nitrogen in the universe is nitrogen-14.
Interesting Facts about Nitrogen
- Liquid nitrogen is very cold and will immediately freeze skin on contact causing severe damage and frostbite.
- It is thought to be around the seventh most abundant element in the universe by mass.
- Nitrogen is the fourth most abundant element in the human body by mass. It accounts for around three percent of the mass of the human body.
- It is produced deep inside stars by a process called fusion.
- Nitrogen plays an important role in DNA molecules.
More on the Elements and the Periodic Table
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