Chemical Element: nitrogen

(Latin: "forming niter", or “niter producer”; because niter, a mineral properly called potassium nitrate, and contains nitrogen, a compound of nitrogen; gas)

Chemical-Element information

Symbol: N
Atomic number: 7
Year discovered: 1772

Discovered by: Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), a British chemist.

  • It was known during the 18th century that air contains at least two gases, one of which supports combustion and life and another which does not.
  • Nitrogen was discovered by Daniel Rutherford, in 1772, who called it "noxious air", but Scheele, Cavendish, Priestley, and others at about the same time studied “burnt” or “dephlogisticated” air, as air without oxygen was then called.
  • Common air is a mixture of two gases, which C. W. Scheele called “foul air” (nitrogen) and “fire air” (oxygen).
  • Nitrogen makes up about 78% of the atmosphere by volume.
  • Nitrogen can be obtained by liquefaction and fractional distillation from air.
  • The element seemed so inert that Lavoisier named it “azote”, meaning “without life”; however, its compounds are vital components of foods, fertilizers, and explosives.
  • Nitrogen gas is colorless, odorless, and generally inert.
  • The name nitrogen was introduced by J. A. C. Chaptal (1790) to indicate that the element is a constituent of nitre (potassium nitrate, or saltpeter).
  • As a liquid it is also colorless and odorless, and is similar in appearance to water.
  • When nitrogen is heated, it combines directly with magnesium, lithium, or calcium.
  • When mixed with oxygen and subjected to electric sparks, it forms nitric oxide and then dioxide.
  • Nitrogen is “fixed” from the atmosphere by bacteria in the roots of certain plants such as clover and legumes. Hence the usefulness of clover and beans, etc. in crop rotation is vital.

Name in other languages:

French: azote

German: Stickstoff

Italian: azoto

Spanish: nitrógeno

Information about other elements may be seen at this Chemical Elements List.

A special unit about words that include chemo-, chem- may be seen here.