Micro Life Zone
Asked by michikomiyu to Arti, Chris, Dustin, James, Steven on 19 May 2012.
Keywords: nitrogen, sulfur
Sulfur as an element is essential for life and is used a lot in biological processes.
Pure nitrogen is an inert gas, and in atomic form, forms important parts of amino acid chains.
Pure sulfur, not much I can think of in everyday life. Pure nitrogen, in its liquid form, is popping up increasingly on cooking shows on TV, where it is used to snap freeze food as part of fancy cooking. Hester Blumenthal loves his liquid nitrogen. Or you may see it pop up on Master Chef occasionally. But still unusual in the everyday home kitchen.
In pure forms I can’t think of anything in particular but combined with other elements both are found in good fertilisers. Nitrogen is particularly good for tomatoes from what I have heard.
As the others have said, both nitrogen and sulfur are important for life, and both play important roles when they are part of other chemicals, such as amino acids. Sulfur and nitrogen atoms are also important parts of cytochrome P450 enzymes (which I study), which are involved in lots of natural processes, and are essential for these (and some other) enzymes/proteins to function properly.
In the lab, we use nitrogen gas when we carry out reactions. Nitrogen is an inert gas (which means it isn’t reactive), and so we flush/fill our reaction flasks with nitrogen to make sure there is no air left inside them (because air can be bad for some reactions). We also use liquid nitrogen to freeze some things (like enzymes!), and when we need to use high vacuum pumps. This is a little difficult to explain by typing, but I’ll try! 🙂 We have these pumps hooked up to a glass piece called a ‘cold finger’, which is attached on the other side to pipes that we then attach to flasks of our chemicals. The idea of these pumps is that when you have a flask of a chemical that you have made and it still has a little bit of solvent left in it, like hexane or even water, the pump can suck away the last bit of solvent and dries your chemical. (It does this because the pump generates a very strong vacuum, so the whole system is under a very low pressure. When the pressure is lowered, the temperature that the solvent boils/vaporises at becomes lower, so the solvent vaporises at room temperature). We keep the ‘cold finger’ really cold by keeping it in a container of liquid nitrogen, so that the solvent vapour that is sucked away condenses (becomes liquid) and collects in the cold finger instead of going straight through to the actual pump and hurting it.) Sorry if that doesn’t make much sense to you – it is difficult to explain without being able to show you, and I can’t find a really good picture on the web to show you.
In the lab we can use sulfur for some kinds of reactions, or to clean up mercury spills (for example, if a mercury thermometer breaks).
Here are some uses of nitrogen gas (N2), which relate to everyday life (or at least I think they do!) that I found:
1) to preserve freshness of packaged foods (it delays oxidation of the food by air).
2) in the production of stainless steel, and some electronic parts (circuits, transistors, etc).
3) in light bulbs as an alternative to argon gas (which is more expensive).
4) in aircraft fuel systems – having inert nitrogen around fuel tanks decreases the amount of oxygen and lowers the chances of fires.
5) for filling aircraft tyres (and maybe even car tyres) instead of air.
6) apparently nitrogen can be used to pressurise beer instead of or along with carbon dioxide.
7) as the power source for paintball guns instead of carbon dioxide.
Nitrogen is also the major component of air (~78% nitrogen, ~21% oxygen, 1% other gases).
Liquid nitrogen is known as a ‘cryogenic liquid’ and can be used to freeze and preserve things. Like Steven mentioned, people seem to like using it for cooking these days (as part of ‘molecular gastronomy’), but some more common everyday uses of it are actually found in medicine. It is used to ‘cryopreserve’ (preserve by freezing) things like blood samples, or eggs or sperm or embryos during treatments such as IVF. It is also used to freeze and remove things like warts (this is called ‘cryotherapy’).
Elemental sulfur (S) is often found as part of fertilisers, as James has mentioned, but it is also has a few other uses. Here are some that I found:
1) it is found in some cosmetics or pharmaceutical skin treatments.
2) it is a component of gunpowder.
3) it is used to vulcanise rubber (which means make rubber harder).
4) it can be used as a fungicide/pesticide/fumigant.
5) it can be used as an electrical insulator.
Who would have thought that these two elements have so many everyday applications in their elemental state! 🙂
By BRIDGE8 under license from Mangorolla CIC 2020