How Nitrogen Was Discovered

Today we celebrate Daniel Rutherford, who was born November 3, 1749.  The Scottish scientist is credited (somewhat erroneously) for discovering the element nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the most abundant element in our atmosphere, comprising about 78 percent of the air we breathe.  It is found in all proteins and nucleic acids.  It is a primary ingredient in ammonia, used in everything from fertilizers to explosives.  It is even used to protect historic documents such as the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

How did science discover an invisible, colorless, odorless and tasteless gas – 200 years before we had Agilent instruments?

At the time, scientists believed in the theory of phlogiston.  Supposedly, all flammable substances contained phlogiston, which would be released during combustion.  Conveniently, phlogiston had no color, smell, taste or mass, making it undetectable.

Back to Rutherford.  As a student, he was asked to investigate why a candle will not burn in carbon dioxide.

He put a mouse in a closed jar until it died.  (Kids, please do not try this experiment at home!)  Then he burned a candle in the jar until it stopped burning.  Then he burned phosphorus in the jar until it too stopped burning.  He took the remaining “air” and passed it through a solution that absorbs carbon dioxide.

Through this process, Rutherford had removed all oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air.  He identified the remaining gas as “phlogisticated” or “noxious” air, since nothing could live or combust in it.  Rutherford had correctly isolated nitrogen, though he was incorrect about what it was.

The word “nitrogen” was later coined from the French words nitre (“saltpeter”) and gène (“producing”), as the gas was an essential component of nitric acid.

Agilent offers a revolutionary MP-AES (Microwave Plasma-Atomic Emission Spectrometer).  Normally, these instruments conduct elemental analyses using flammable or expensive gases.

Agilent’s breakthrough instrument uses a nitrogen-based plasma.  In other words, the Agilent MP-AES runs entirely on air.  Without the need for external cylinder connections or ongoing gas supplies, the Agilent MP-AES is ideal for remote sites, mobile laboratories and safe, unattended overnight operation.

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