Symbol N
Atomic Number 7
Atomic Mass 14.0067
Electron Configuration 2-5

W h a t ' s   i n   a   N a m e ?
Nitrogen gets its name from a mineral known as "niter" (potassium nitrate), from which it can be prepared.

H i s t o r y

Until the late 1700s gases were poorly understood by chemists.  They often wondered what air was made of.  In the 1770's, a Scottish physician and chemist Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819) performed a simple experiment with which he discovered nitrogen.  Rutherford began with an empty bottle that he turned upside down in a pan of water, so that the air was trapped.  A burning candle was placed inside the bottle with the trapped air, causing the water to rise a bit.  Why did this happen?  The part of the air that seemed to "disappear" when the candle was burned was oxygen gas, and the part of the air that did not "disappear" Rutherford discovered was nitrogen.




Nitrogen is a fairly common element in the Earth's crust.  It is by far the most important element of the Earth's atmosphere, making up about 78.084 percent.  The greatest use of nitrogen is in ammonia which is used for fertilizer production and to produce nitric acid.   Nitrogen gas is used where an inert atmosphere (one without oxygen) is needed, such as in an ordinary light bulb.  Nitrogen is also used to protect historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence.  Liquid nitrogen is used by the oil industry to build up pressure in wells to force crude oil upward.  It is also possible to buy large containers of liquid nitrogen which can be used to freeze materials like food.  This is how most of the frozen foods in a grocery store are used.  Nitrogen is also used in explosives.


Nitrogen is absolutely essential to all living organisms.  It is an important part of all protein molecules which, among other functions, are the building material in all kinds of cells  Nitrogen is also used to make up nucleic acids which store an organism's genetic information. Nitrogen gas is not toxic, but, in principle, pure nitrogen could asphyxiate the body by denying it access to oxygen.


~ Nitrogen gas makes up about 78% of the atmosphere on Earth but only 3% of the atmosphere on Mars.

~ In the Oklahoma City bombing, an ammonium nitrate bomb destroyed the Murrah Building.  The explosion resulted from a mixture of 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil from twenty plastic drums.

~ Nitrogen oxides (from combustion) are one cause of toxic rain.