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Uses for Nitrogen

by Ron Kurtus (30 November 2007)

Besides making up 78% of the Earth's atmosphere, nitrogen has a number of uses. Since it is an inert gas, it can be used to replace air and reduce or eliminate oxidation of materials.

The most important use is in creating ammonia, which in turn is used to make fertilizer, explosives and other materials. Finally, liquid nitrogen is used as a refrigerant for very low temperatures.

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Uses as inert gas

Nitrogen gas (N2) is often used as a replacement for air where oxidation is undesirable.

One area for use is to preserve the freshness of foods by packaging them in nitrogen. This greatly reduces the spoilage of the food, due to it getting rancid or suffering other forms of oxidative damage.

For years, argon gas had been used in incandescent light bulbs to prevent the tungsten filament from burning up, since argon is an inert material. Nitrogen is now being used as an inexpensive alternative to argon.

Other areas where nitrogen is used is in dealing with liquid explosives as a safety measure, in military aircraft fuel systems to reduce the fire hazard, and in the production of electronic parts such as transistors, diodes and integrated circuits.

Uses as ammonia

The most important use of nitrogen is in making ammonia (NH3), which is a colorless gas with a strong odor, similar to the smell of urine. The reason is because urine contains some ammonia.

Fertilizer

A major use of ammonia is in making fertilizers. Ammonia can be used directly as fertilizer by adding it to irrigation water for plants that needing much nitrogen. It is also used to produce the urea (NH2CONH2), which is used as a fertilizer. Another important use of ammonia is to create nitric acid (HNO3), which is then also used to make fertilizer.

Other uses

Many people use household ammonia as a disinfectant. Nitric acid—made form ammonia—is used in explosives. Ammonia is also used in the plastic industry and as a feed supplement for livestock.

Liquid nitrogen

Nitrogen is a liquid at temperatures below −196.5 °C and is used as a refrigerant for such things as preservation of blood and cooling of large computer systems, as well as some industrial uses. Being a liquid, it is more convenient to use for low temperature cooling than dry ice.

Liquid nitrogen is also used in oil wells to build up pressure in order to force crude oil upward.

Summary

Nitrogen has a number of important uses. It can be used to replace air and eliminate oxidation of materials. Its most important use is in creating ammonia, which in turn is used to make fertilizer and explosives. Liquid nitrogen is used as a refrigerant for very low temperatures.


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