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Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere.

Many industrially important compounds, such as ammonia, nitric acid, organic nitrates (propellants and explosives), and cyanides, contain nitrogen. The extremely strong bond in elemental nitrogen dominates nitrogen chemistry, causing difficulty for both organisms and industry in breaking the bond to convert the N2 into useful compounds, but releasing large amounts of often useful energy, when these compounds burn, explode, or decay back into nitrogen gas.

The element nitrogen was discovered by Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford in 1772. Nitrogen occurs in all living organisms. It is a constituent element of amino acids and thus of proteins, and of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). It resides in the chemical structure of almost all neurotransmitters, and is a defining component of alkaloids, biological molecules produced by many organisms.


Nitrogen is a nonmetal, with an electronegativity of 3.04. It has five electrons in its outer shell and is therefore trivalent in most compounds. The triple bond in molecular nitrogen (N2) is the strongest. The resulting difficulty of converting N2 into other compounds, and the ease (and associated high energy release) of converting nitrogen compounds into elemental N2, have dominated the role of nitrogen in both nature and human economic activities.

At atmospheric pressure molecular nitrogen condenses (liquefies) at 77 K (−195.8 °C) and freezes at 63 K (−210.0 °C) into the beta hexagonal close-packed crystal allotropic form. Below 35.4 K (−237.6 °C) nitrogen assumes the alpha cubic crystal allotropic form. Liquid nitrogen, a fluid resembling water in appearance, but with 80.8% of the density (the density of liquid nitrogen at its boiling point is 0.808 g/mL), is a common cryogen.

Unstable allotropes of nitrogen consisting of more than two nitrogen atoms have been produced in the laboratory, like N3 and N4.[4] Under extremely high pressures (1.1 million atm) and high temperatures (2000 K), as produced using a diamond anvil cell, nitrogen polymerizes into the single-bonded cubic gauche crystal structure. This structure is similar to that of diamond, and both have extremely strong covalent bonds. N4 is nicknamed "nitrogen diamond."[5]


There are two stable isotopes of nitrogen: 14N and 15N. By far the most common is 14N (99.634%), which is produced in the CNO cycle in stars. Of the ten isotopes produced synthetically, 13N has a half-life of ten minutes and the remaining isotopes have half-lives on the order of seconds or less. Biologically mediated reactions (e.g., assimilation, nitrification, and denitrification) strongly control nitrogen dynamics in the soil. These reactions typically result in 15N enrichment of the substrate and depletion of the product.

A small part (0.73%) of the molecular nitrogen in Earth's atmosphere is the isotopologue 14N15N, and almost all the rest is 14N2.

Radioisotope 16N is the dominant radionuclide in the coolant of pressurized water reactors during normal operation. It is produced from 16O (in water) via (n,p) reaction. It has a short half-life of about 7.1 s, but during its decay back to 16O produces high-energy gamma radiation (5 to 7 MeV). Because of this, the access to the primary coolant piping must be restricted during reactor power operation.[6]16N is one of the main means used to immediately detect even small leaks from the primary coolant to the secondary steam cycle.

Electromagnetic spectrum

A 1×5 cm vial of glowing ultrapure nitrogen

Molecular nitrogen (14N2) is largely transparent to infrared and visible radiation because it is a homonuclear molecule and thus has no dipole moment to couple to electromagnetic radiation at these wavelengths. Significant absorption occurs at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, beginning around 100 nanometers. This is associated with electronic transitions in the molecule to states in which charge is not distributed evenly between nitrogen atoms. Nitrogen absorption leads to significant absorption of ultraviolet radiation in the Earth's upper atmosphere and the atmospheres of other planetary bodies. For similar reasons, pure molecular nitrogen lasers typically emit light in the ultraviolet range.

Nitrogen also makes a contribution to visible air glow from the Earth's upper atmosphere, through electron impact excitation followed by emission. This visible blue air glow (seen in the polar aurora and in the re-entry glow of returning spacecraft) typically results not from molecular nitrogen, but rather from free nitrogen atoms combining with oxygen to form nitric oxide (NO).


Structure of [Ru(NH3)5(N2)]2+.

Nitrogen is generally unreactive at standard temperature and pressure. N2 reacts spontaneously with few reagents, being resilient to acids and bases as well as oxidants and most reductants. When nitrogen reacts spontaneously with a reagent, the net transformation is often called nitrogen fixation.

Nitrogen reacts with elemental lithium.[7] Lithium burns in an atmosphere of N2 to give lithium nitride:

6 Li + N2 → 2 Li3N

Magnesium also burns in nitrogen, forming magnesium nitride.

3 Mg + N2 → Mg3N2

N2 forms a variety of adducts with transition metals. The first example of a dinitrogen complex is [Ru(NH3)5(N2)]2+ (see figure at right). Such compounds are now numerous, other examples include IrCl(N2)(PPh3)2, W(N2)2(Ph2CH2CH2PPh2)2, and [(η5-C5Me4H)2Zr]22, η²,η²-N2). These complexes illustrate how N2 might bind to the metal(s) in nitrogenase and the catalyst for the Haber process.[8] A catalytic process to reduce N2 to ammonia with the use of a molybdenum complex in the presence of a proton source was published in 2005.[7] (see nitrogen fixation)

The starting point for industrial production of nitrogen compounds is the Haber process, in which nitrogen is fixed by reacting N2 and H2 over an iron(III) oxide (Fe3O4) catalyst at about 500 °C and 200 atmospheres pressure. Biological nitrogen fixation in free-living cyanobacteria and in the root nodules of plants also produces ammonia from molecular nitrogen. The reaction, which is the source of the bulk of nitrogen in the biosphere, is catalyzed by the nitrogenase enzyme complex which contains Fe and Mo atoms, using energy derived from hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) into adenosine diphosphate and inorganic phosphate (−20.5 kJ/mol).


Nitrogen is the largest single constituent of the Earth's atmosphere (78.082% by volume of dry air, 75.3% by weight in dry air). It is created by fusion processes in stars, and is estimated to be the 7th most abundant chemical element by mass in the universe.[9]

Molecular nitrogen and nitrogen compounds have been detected in interstellar space by astronomers using the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer.[10] Molecular nitrogen is a major constituent of the Saturnian moon Titan's thick atmosphere, and occurs in trace amounts in other planetary atmospheres.[11]

Nitrogen is present in all living organisms, in proteins, nucleic acids and other molecules. It typically makes up around 4% of the dry weight of plant matter, and around 3% of the weight of the human body. It is a large component of animal waste (for example, guano), usually in the form of urea, uric acid, ammonium compounds and derivatives of these nitrogenous products, which are essential nutrients for all plants that cannot fix atmospheric nitrogen.

Nitrogen occurs naturally in many minerals, such as saltpetre (potassium nitrate), Chile saltpetre (sodium nitrate) and sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride). Most of these are uncommon, partly because of the minerals' ready solubility in water. See also Nitrate minerals and Ammonium minerals.


The main neutral hydride of nitrogen is ammonia (NH3), although hydrazine (N2H4) is also commonly used. Ammonia is more basic than water by 6 orders of magnitude. In solution ammonia forms the ammonium ion (NH+4). Liquid ammonia (boiling point 240 K) is amphiprotic (displaying either Brønsted-Lowry acidic or basic character) and forms ammonium and the less common amide ions (NH2); both amides and nitride (N3−) salts are known, but decompose in water. Singly, doubly, triply and quadruply substituted alkyl compounds of ammonia are called amines (four substitutions, to form commercially and biologically important quaternary amines, results in a positively charged nitrogen, and thus a water-soluble, or at least amphiphilic, compound). Larger chains, rings and structures of nitrogen hydrides are also known, but are generally unstable. N2+2 is another polyatomic cation as in hydrazine.

Other classes of nitrogen anions (negatively charged ions) are the poisonous azides (N3), which are linear and isoelectronic to carbon dioxide, but which bind to important iron-containing enzymes in the body in a manner more resembling cyanide. Another molecule of the same structure is the colorless and relatively inert anesthetic gas Nitrous oxide (dinitrogen monoxide, N2O), also known as laughing gas. This is one of a variety of nitrogen oxides that form a family often abbreviated as NOx. Nitric oxide (nitrogen monoxide, NO), is a natural free radical used in signal transduction in both plants and animals, for example in vasodilation by causing the smooth muscle of blood vessels to relax. The reddish and poisonous nitrogen dioxide NO2 contains an unpaired electron and is an important component of smog. Nitrogen molecules containing unpaired electrons show an understandable tendency to dimerize (thus pairing the electrons), and are generally highly reactive. The corresponding acids are nitrousHNO2 and nitric acid HNO3, with the corresponding salts called nitrites and nitrates.

The higher oxides dinitrogen trioxide N2O3, dinitrogen tetroxide N2O4 and dinitrogen pentoxide N2O5, are unstable and explosive, a consequence of the chemical stability of N2. Nearly every hypergolic rocket engine usesN2O4 as the oxidizer; their fuels, various forms of hydrazine, are also nitrogen compounds. These engines are extensively used on spacecraft such as the space shuttle and those of the Apollo Program because their propellants are liquids at room temperature and ignition occurs on contact without an ignition system, allowing many precisely controlled burns. Some launch vehicles, such as the Titan II and Ariane 1 through 4 also use hypergolic fuels, although the trend is away from such engines for cost and safety reasons. N2O4 is an intermediate in the manufacture of nitric acid HNO3, one of the few acids stronger than hydronium and a fairly strong oxidizing agent.

Nitrogen is notable for the range of explosively unstable compounds that it can produce. Nitrogen triiodide NI3 is an extremely sensitive contact explosive. Nitrocellulose, produced by nitration of cellulose with nitric acid, is also known as guncotton. Nitroglycerin, made by nitration of glycerin, is the dangerously unstable explosive ingredient of dynamite. The comparatively stable, but more powerful explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT) is the standard explosive against which the power of nuclear explosions are measured.

Nitrogen can also be found in organic compounds. Common nitrogen functional groups include: amines, amides, nitro groups, imines, and enamines. The amount of nitrogen in a chemical substance can be determined by the Kjeldahl method.


A computer rendering of the nitrogen molecule, N2.

Nitrogen gas is an industrial gas produced by the fractional distillation of liquid air, or by mechanical means using gaseous air (i.e. pressurized reverse osmosis membrane or Pressure swing adsorption). 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).[12]

Nitrogen gas has a variety of applications, including serving as an inert replacement for air where oxidation is undesirable;

  • As a modified atmosphere, pure or mixed with carbon dioxide, to preserve the freshness of packaged or bulk foods (by delaying rancidity and other forms of oxidative damage)
  • In ordinary incandescent light bulbs as an inexpensive alternative to argon.[13]
  • The production of electronic parts such as transistors, diodes, and integrated circuits
  • Dried and pressurized, as a dielectric gas for high voltage equipment
  • The manufacturing of stainless steel[14]
  • Use in military aircraft fuel systems to reduce fire hazard, (see inerting system)
  • On top of liquid explosives as a safety measure
  • Filling automotive and aircraft tires[15] due to its inertness and lack of moisture or oxidative qualities, as opposed to air, though this is not necessary for consumer automobiles.[16][17]
  • Use as a propellant for draught wine, and as an alternative to or together with carbon dioxide for other beverages.

Nitrogen is commonly used during sample preparation procedures for chemical analysis. Specifically, it is used to concentrate and reduce the volume of liquid samples. Directing a pressurized stream of nitrogen gas perpendicular to the surface of the liquid allows the solvent to evaporate while leaving the solute(s) and un-evaporated solvent behind.[18]

Nitrogen tanks are also replacing carbon dioxide as the main power source for paintball guns. The downside is that nitrogen must be kept at higher pressure than CO2, making N2 tanks heavier and more expensive.

Nitrogenated beer

A further example of its versatility is its use as a preferred alternative to carbon dioxide to pressurize kegs of some beers, particularly stouts and British ales, due to the smaller bubbles it produces, which make the dispensed beer smoother and headier. A modern application of a pressure sensitive nitrogen capsule known commonly as a "widget" now allows nitrogen charged beers to be packaged in cans and bottles.[19]

A mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide can be used for this purpose as well, to maintain the saturation of beer with carbon dioxide.[20]

Liquid nitrogen

Play  video
Air balloon submerged into liquid nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen is a cryogenic liquid. At atmospheric pressure, it boils at −195.8 °C. When insulated in proper containers such as Dewar flasks, it can be transported without much evaporative loss.[21]

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 cold traps for certain laboratory equipment and to cool X-ray detectors. It has also been used to cool central processing units and other devices in computers which are overclocked, and which produce more heat than during normal operation.[22]

Applications of nitrogen compounds

Molecular nitrogen (N2) in the atmosphere is relatively non-reactive due to its strong bond, and N2 plays an inert role in the human body, being neither produced nor destroyed. In nature, nitrogen is converted into biologically (and industrially) useful compounds by lightning, and by some living organisms, notably certain bacteria (i.e. nitrogen fixing bacteria – see Biological role below). Molecular nitrogen is released into the atmosphere in the process of decay, in dead plant and animal tissues.

The ability to combine or fix molecular nitrogen is a key feature of modern industrial chemistry, where nitrogen and natural gas are converted into ammonia via the Haber process. Ammonia, in turn, can be used directly (primarily as a fertilizer, and in the synthesis of nitrated fertilizers), or as a precursor of many other important materials including explosives, largely via the production of nitric acid by the Ostwald process.

The organic and inorganic salts of nitric acid have been important historically as convenient stores of chemical energy. They include important compounds such as potassium nitrate (or saltpeter used in gunpowder) and ammonium nitrate, an important fertilizer and explosive (see ANFO). Various other nitrated organic compounds, such as nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene, and nitrocellulose, are used as explosives and propellants for modern firearms. Nitric acid is used as an oxidizing agent in liquid fueled rockets. Hydrazine and hydrazine derivatives find use as rocket fuels and monopropellants. In most of these compounds, the basic instability and tendency to burn or explode is derived from the fact that nitrogen is present as an oxide, and not as the far more stable nitrogen molecule (N2) which is a product of the compounds' thermal decomposition. When nitrates burn or explode, the formation of the powerful triple bond in the N2 produces most of the energy of the reaction.

Nitrogen is a constituent of molecules in every major drug class in pharmacology and medicine. Nitrous oxide (N2O) was discovered early in the 19th century to be a partial anesthetic, though it was not used as a surgical anesthetic until later. Called "laughing gas", it was found capable of inducing a state of social disinhibition resembling drunkenness. Other notable nitrogen-containing drugs are drugs derived from plant alkaloids, such as morphine (there exist many alkaloids known to have pharmacological effects; in some cases they appear natural chemical defenses of plants against predation). Drugs that contain nitrogen include all major classes of antibiotics, and organic nitrate drugs like nitroglycerin and nitroprusside that regulate blood pressure and heart action by mimicking the action of nitric oxide.


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