Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Nitrogen APEX Mineral

Nitrogen (N #7) is the next element on the periodic table for my APEX mineral collection.  
Wikipedia Nitrogen
Nitrogen Minerals
Urea (CO(NH2)2) with 46% Nitrogen is my APEX mineral.  

Nitrogen is a little different.  It is another one of those troublesome elements on row 2 (Period  2) of the periodic table.  In this case, we have another element like Hydrogen that is very common in the universe but doesn't have common minerals.

It turns out that Nitrogen is relatively rare on Earth.  The vast majority of Nitrogen is in the atmosphere at 78% by volume.  Almost all the rest is organic in nature.  The biggest deposits of Nitrogen compounds is in organic deposits like bat guano or ocean sediments.  My definition of APEX mineral excludes organic minerals so I have to rule these out.

The remaining Nitrogen minerals only exist in minute quantities as inclusions in other minerals.  My APEX mineral has to be visible in my cabinet so I have to rule these out.  I'm left with no choices here.

So now I have "cheat" just like I did for Hydrogen (remember Amber?).  I am going to chose an organic mineral.  All of these readily dissolve in water so I also have to double "cheat" and allow salts.  I decided to triple "cheat" and use a man made Urea (46% Nitrogen) as my APEX mineral.  It has the highest concentration of any Nitrogen mineral so this makes the best choice.  I keep it in a plastic container so that humidity doesn't destroy my sample.
Pure Nitrogen is primarily produced directly from air.  Liquid Nitrogen is great fun to play with if you are careful.  Insert, freeze, hammer.

Nitrogen compounds were well known by the Middle Ages. Alchemists knew nitric acid as aqua fortis (strong water), nitric and hydrochloric acids was known as aqua regia (royal water), celebrated for its ability to dissolve gold (the king of metals).  Saltpetre (sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate) was used in gunpower.
Nitrogen compounds are primarily used as fertilizers or explosives.  
Nitrogen is critical to life on Earth.  DNA, Proteins, and all organic compounds contain Nitrogen in some form. But if Nitrogen is so rare on Earth, where do organisms get it all come from?  The Nitrogen Cycle.  That nebulous science class topic really is the key.  The little mineralized Nitrogen that does exist is constantly recycle by living organisms as they feed and die and decompose.  The Nitrogen in the atmosphere is NOT useable by most organisms.  It is out of reach and unavailable to the main Nitrogen Cycle.

The beautiful thing is that a few specialized organisms can actually fix atmospheric Nitrogen into useful minerals which are fed into this Nitrogen Cycle.

When we humans run our industrial processes to create fertilizer (Nitrogen) literally out of thin air, we are introducing Nitrogen into the ecosystem in massive quantities which plants love (for good AND bad).