Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's Amino World

The sky overhead is an ocean of nitrogen. Around 4,000 trillion tons of nitrogen (N2) float trapped up there because it's too light to sink back to earth and yet too heavy to float away into space (it's gravity shackled-unlike helium-the next lightest gaseous element). That enormous enveloping ocean has storms too. Nitrogen, and to a lesser extent oxygen, once set into motion, are essentially wind.

I once naively thought that azote, the French term for nitrogen, was etymologically related to the azure of a blue sky. Wrong! The aptly named azote literally means "no life" and that name was acquired shortly after oxygen and nitrogen were distinguished as the essential components of air: one gas supported life and one did not. The Germans call nitrogen Stickstoff, which literally means "suffocating-stuff". We call nitrogen "nitrogen" because it engenders "nitro" (nitro being an older word for saltpeter) which is an essential ingredient of gunpowder and plant fertilizer.

Despite the name azote, nitrogen compounds are quite lively and have a long and interesting history of blowing things up: gunpowder, dynamite, nitromethane racing fuel, TNT, and even airbags. In a very real sense, nitrogen's instability (chemical reactivity) under those circumstances is ultimately related to the stability of N2 and the element's propensity to get back to that elemental state, serenely floating above the fray.

Nitrogen is essential for all living organisms, which have tamed its volatility.  Organic nitrogen is of course a constituent element of amino acids and thus of proteins, and also presents in nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). I wrote earlier about boron being fundamentally electron-poor with respect to carbon. Nitrogen, which sits on the right hand side of queen carbon, is the converse-electron rich with respect to the queen. That's really why nitrogen is an organic base.

Relatively little usable nitrogen is found in the earth. The amount in the air is about one million times larger than the total nitrogen contained in living organisms. Nitrogen availability is often the limiting factor in plant growth.  Plants make organic nitrogen from air and we get usable nitrogen from plants (actually bacteria within the roots of some plants "fix" nitrogen to usable forms). 

We no longer depend exclusively upon plants to make ammonia from the sky.  During the First World War, Imperial Germany was cutoff from its sources of fixed nitrogen (mainly Chilean saltpeter and bat guano). Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare, developed the direct conversion nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) using hydrogen gas.  Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this feat, despite Germany losing the war and despite his wartime culpabilty in making things like chlorine and phosgene gases for trench warfare. The commercial Haber-Bosch process literally allowed the subsequent population bloom known as the Green Revolution. The process is still used today, highly refined, but essentially unchanged.


  1. I'm relying on you from now on to relate every element to ice cream!

  2. Besides, liquid nitrogen, despite being one of the coolest substances on earth, is beyond the ken of most people who read this, unless you're the only person who reads this.