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The History of Nitrogen

Nitrogen is the unseen element at the core of our modern world, accounting for 78.09% of the earth's atmosphere by volume, its abundance and unique characteristics have been used to help us grow food and discover new medicines while putting out fires or bringing down a building. In this series we will find out more about nitrogen, where did it come from, how is it used and the duel nature of this life and death element.

We must start our journey with Daniel Rutherford who was a world-renown chemist from Edinburgh in the UK, his most famous discovery was that of nitrogen.

Rutherford’s discovery was aided by the mentorship he gained from another famous chemist of the time Joseph Black. Black was an excellent scientist and could possibly be described as the father of thermodynamics when he theorizes latent and specific heat. Black was also the discoverer of carbon dioxide (CO2) but as with Rutherford, he was unaware of exactly what his discovery was and named it “fixed air” because of its inability to hold a flame or sustain life (experiments were carried out on unfortunate mice).

The experiment that leads Rutherford to Nitrogen was an extension of Blacks Carbon Dioxide experiments. Black showed that heating limestone or dissolving with acid produced his fixed air, using similar proofs he showed that living animals and the brewing process of fermentation produced this same gas.

From there Rutherford places a variety of oxygen-consuming items in a sealed flask until they had used up all available traces of the oxygen (from a mouse to candles). Knowing that this air was full of “fixed air” (Carbon Dioxide) Rutherford passed the mixture through Limewater (Calcium Hydroxide) in order to remove all the CO2.

This newly filtered air was then tested in the same way as Blacks “fixed air” by attempting to combust objects within this atmosphere and making mice breath in it. Both experiments proved that this mixture could not support combustion or life and having no “fixed air” it must be something new. Rutherfords naming was as imaginative as his mentors, and possibly as a nod to the great man the discovery was called “noxious air”.

Rutherford was under the impression that he had isolated a component of the air, while technically correct this observation does not include the discovery of Nitrogen as a new element.

The initial properties of this component of air was it’s inability to facilitate combustion, this property was latched into in the first attempts to name the new discovery; Rutherford himself called it noxious air, others used it in their theories of combustion and rust (before both were known to be oxidation) and called it phlogisticated air, the world famous french chemist Antoine Lavoisier called it azote a name which still exists in many non-english countries and has crept into the naming of certain compounds such as hydrazine and sodium azide to name a few.

The early years of nitrogen were fairly uneventful with scientist not even knowing that a new element had been discovered and no method for mass production of any nitrogen compound for over 100 years after its discovery. While saltpetre and fertilizers have been used through out history they are simply naturally occurring nitrogen compounds it wouldn’t be until the 20th century that nitrogen came into its own


Univeristy of Glasgow, Chemistry Department (

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