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Nitrogen was discovered in 1772 by Scottish chemist Daniel Rutherford when he removed oxygen and CO2 from air and showed that the residual gas would not support fires or living organisms. Though Rutherford is credited with the discovery, several other well known scientists, such as Scheele, Cavendish, and Priestley, were working on identifying the properties of nitrogen at the same time. The element’s name is derived from the Latin nitron and genes, which together mean “saltpetre forming.” Nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, gas that is relatively non-reactive. Despite its rank as the most abundant element in the atmosphere, nitrogen is only fifth in abundance in the universe, due to its relative scarcity in the geosphere and hydrophere.

There are two naturally occurring isotopes, nitrogen-14 and nitrogen-15, with nitrogen-14 making up 99.63 percent of all nitrogen. French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier mistakenly named nitrogen azote, meaning “without life,” but nitrogen is both the most abundant element in the atmosphere and, as a building block of proteins and nucleic acids such as DNA, a crucially important component of all biological life. It makes up 78% of the air we breathe, and nitrogen compounds are found in everything from foods and organic materials to fertilizers, poisons, and explosives. Nitrogen is a key element in biological systems, yet most nitrogen exists as a gas that is unusable by most organisms. It is through a process called nitrogen fixation that nitrogen is fixed into a biologically available form, which can then be used by plants. Animals eat the plants, and in turn get eaten by other animals, and in this way biologically useful nitrogen enters the food chain.

Unlike other elements, nitrogen is not mined from the Earth. Rather, it is taken from the air through fractional distillation: air is cooled until it liquefies, then heated in a carefully controlled process. Liquid nitrogen is used to keep foods and biological specimens frozen, and gaseous nitrogen is used in environments where a non-reactive gas is needed to shield something from oxidization. For example, fruit stored in a nitrogen environment can go for two years without deteriorating. Other applications include the gaseous insulation of transformers and semiconductors; providing an inert atmosphere for electric furnaces; and helping to force crude oil to the surface.

Modern farming uses the soil intensively and quickly depletes the nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere through natural processes. In order to continue crop production, fertilizers must be added to replace the lost nutrients in the soil. The great bulk of artificially prepared nitrogen is used to produce ammonia (NH3) and nitric acid (HNO3), which in turn are used to produce various crop fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate. Ammonia is also used in the production of urea, NH2CONH2, which is used as a fertilizer and a livestock feed supplement, as well as in the plastic industry. Ammonia is produced using the Haber-Bosch Process. In this process, nitrogen is reacted with a source of hydrogen, usually natural gas mixed with steam. Under high pressure and temperature, in the presence of an iron catalyst, ammonia is formed. The primary waste emissions from the commercial production of ammonia are the combustion products that come from burning natural gas, principally CO2. In addition to the production-based emissions, however, concerns are rising about the large amounts of nitrogen-rich fertilizer intensive farming practices require. Human practices that add reactive nitrogen back into the ecosystems, have been shown to have detrimental effects on the balance of ecological systems. In its nitrate form, nitrogen is extremely soluble and so is readily leached from soils into ground water reservoirs, which feed into lakes and streams. In agricultural areas, fertilizers are the most important source of nitrogen pollution. In urban areas, with larger populations, food and food processing are the culprit. As with other animals, human wastes are nitrogen rich, and this is especially the case with the large amounts of food protein that affluent Americans consume. Waste treatment facilities permit significant quantities of reactive nitrogen from human wastes to re-enter the water cycle. Eventually, the amount of nitrogen can accumulate within the aquatic system and may lead to one of the most serious consequences of nitrogen pollution: eutrophication.

The other main source of nitrogen-based pollution is atmospheric. According to the U.S. EPA, “The primary manmade sources of NOx are motor vehicles, electric utilities, and other industrial, commercial, and residential sources that burn fuels.” Internal combustion engines, such as those found in automobiles, emit oxides of nitrogen in their exhaust. These nitrogen oxides react with oxygen in the air to form NO2, a noxious chemical that is the main ingredient of smog. NO2 gets dissociated by ultraviolet radiation in sunlight to release free oxygen radicals, which then combine with diatomic oxygen molecules to form ozone, O3. Ozone is important in the highest portion of the atmosphere, where it protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation, but down in the troposphere where plants and animals live, ozone can be harmful to the respiratory system at elevated concentrations. Another form of nitrogen pollution is nitric acid, synthesized from NOx combustion products in the atmosphere and one of the components in acid rain.

Adapted from the Environmental Literacy Council.