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There's Nothing like Nitrogen
By Bowser
18, Jan 2002 - 18:58

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The government's announcement of the world's largest nitrogen powered energy farm off Wicklow came just when I was trying to think of something to say about Nitrogen or 'N' as it is called by those who know it well. Wind turbines - as everyone knows - require a lot of nitrogen to get them turning. Ideally, they are set up where there is a particularly fast-flowing mix of gases i.e. one containing about 80% nitrogen, which is the main ingredient forcing the turbine blades to turn and about 20% oxygen. Every time you breathe in you fill your lungs 80% full of nitrogen. Of course the oxygen in the air is useful too but we'll come to that later.
One of Castlebar's 80% nitrogen-power turbines

It's funny that if you put nitrogen and oxygen together with two atoms of nitrogen and one oxygen you get nitrous oxide, which is the real laughing gas, as opposed to helium, which just makes other people laugh at you. Dangerous stuff nitrous oxide, even though dentists use it as an anaesthetic. Apparently, about 100 people die every year from nitrous oxide poisoning used as a 'recreational' drug. At one stage it was thought that nitrous oxide would compete with alcohol as the number one recreational drug. Theatre owners used to released under the seats to ensure that the audience would get a good laugh no matter what rubbish was being served up onstage! Check under the seats in the TF at Panto time!
Do they need laughing gas under the seats at the TF?

The bends, that affects divers coming to the surface too quickly, is caused by nitrogen bubbles getting caught in the joints causing pain and possibly embolisms if they block vital blood vessels. The other nitrogen-related diving hazard is nitrogen narcosis, which can occur when breathing nitrogen under pressure. Normally nitrogen is inert but at high pressure it can have an anaesthetic effect something like nitrous oxide, causing euphoria, giddiness and really stupid behaviour - like removing facemasks and attempting to breathe water.

They tell us that nitrogen is inert and harmless - but so far nitrogen has been as bad as all the other elements - a litany of danger and disaster. So continuing in that vein - what about the nitrogen that contaminates your water? Blue baby syndrome is caused by too much nitrate in drinking water - the nitrate turns to nitrite and binds with the haemoglobin instead of oxygen causing poor baby to go blue from lack of oxygen - but luckily this is not a big problem in Ireland. You are more likely to have high nitrate in bottled water than in tap water. It could be big problem, however, if you use a local well and have some friendly farmer dumping cow slurry all over the place in wet weather. Although in this case the bugs will get you long before the nitrate will.
How to add nitrate and other nasties to your drinking water!

Turning this inert gas into a liquid, by decompressing it rapidly, produces one of the coldest liquids known to man or woman. If you really want to chill out and get some hands on experience you could stick your hand into a container full of liquid nitrogen. Then bang your hand smartly against a table or solid surface and watch as your hand literally shatters like glass into small pieces - well that's what I'm told anyway - do NOT try this at home as they say!! To get an idea of the destructive potential of liquid nitrogen have a look Terminator 2, which has a really spectacular clash between a tanker load of really cold liquid nitrogen and a steel mill full of extremely hot molten metal!
Terminator 2 - Hot and Cold

I was scrabbling around a bit to find the 'lighter' side of nitrogen when it hit me - the Northern Lights of course! Apparently the blues and violets in the northern lights are due to extremely high velocity particles from the sun zapping the nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere as they travel along the lines of the Earth's magnetic field. Unfortunately, the only time I was lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis in Castlebar, I didn't see any blues at all - the sky over Castlebar turned quite red - not blue or violet. Red is oxygen's colour so it was an oxygen display rather than a nitrogen display - maybe you have to go further north to see blue lights. It's funny how quickly you forget these things, but I think that display occurred in the mid-1980s and it was visible right across the country not just in Mayo. The Aurora just hung there all night long - not moving very much. It certainly didn't waver around the place like you'd see on a National Geographic TV special where I suspect we are looking at time lapse speeded up photography. Once your eyes adjusted and you were away from streetlights and house lights (something that's getting more and more difficult to do as light pollution increases everywhere) you could see wonderful, dark, blood-red streaks hanging vertically down in the clear night sky. I read Michael Viney writing about his first ever sighting of the Northern Lights, which was only quite recently, in his Irish Times Saturday column. So seeing the Northern Lights may be a once in a lifetime experience if you live at 53° North of the Equator.

Next -
Do we need an Oxygen Bar in Castlebar?

Previous element:
How I Iearned to stop worrying and love Carbon

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