Monday, September 23, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 7

Only one week to Opening Night, which means Fearless is down to number 7 in the elements of the period table.  Who might the Washington Capital we find here?...


At what scientists refer to as “standard temperature and pressure (pretty much what you live in),” nitrogen is virtually inert.  It does not do much, does not react with much.  It is, however, a very important element for how it behaves as an element.  It binds with itself to form the molecule “N2.”  This bond between the two atoms of nitrogen is extremely strong, difficult to break in the process of chemical reactions.  That strong bond reflects a large amount of stored energy, which is released when compounds containing nitrogen are subjected to combustion or, in the case of organic materials, decay.  Nitrogen occurs in all organisms, primarily in proteins and nucleic acids, essential building blocks of life processes and structures.

Some of the usual suspects (especially those involved in the discovery of oxygen) were present for the discovery of nitrogen – Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestly, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.  But it was Daniel Rutherford, a Scottish chemist, who is credited with discovering it.  The problem, it turned out, was naming the element.  Rutherford called it “fixed air.”  Priestly referred to it as “phlogisticated air.”  Lavoisier called it “mephitic air,” then “azote,” from the Greek word “azotos,” meaning “lifeless.”

The word “nitrogen” would not come for almost another 20 years, and we have Jean-Antoine Chaptal to thank for it.  His thinking was logical in a “chemistry” sense… “nitre” (another name for potassium nitrate, or “salt peter”), from which nitric acid could be produced, in which “nitrogen” was an essential element.  “Nitrogen” was picked as a combination of “nitre” and the Greek word “genes,” meaning forming…”nitre forming,” get it?

Nitrogen has a fair number of practical applications.  For instance, it is used as a food preservative or in fertilizers.  It has applications in electronics and in incandescent light bulbs.  It can be used to reduce fire hazards in environments with fuels present.  It can be a replacement for air in filling tires for high-performance applications (automotive or aircraft, generally).  It can be used to pressurize kegs of beer or ale.  It is also found in the explosives nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene (TNT).  It is found in “super glue” and in Kevlar.  In its liquid form it is used as a refrigerant and can be used for some medical procedures (removing warts, for example). 

Nitrogen is an element that binds strongly with itself, brings with it a strong binding energy, can be found in a wide variety of applications, including: agriculture, fire management, food industries, medicine, refrigeration, and explosives.  Compounds containing nitrogen are very versatile and practical.  It might not have a flashy analog among hockey players, but it does reflect a certain essential and useful character.  Maybe not a top-line center, but a second-line version who contributes the necessary offense and responsible defense to make a good team a contender.

Nitrogen…the “Mikhail Grabovski” of the elements of the periodic table.

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