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What is Nitrogen? - Cycle & Formula

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  • 0:02 Nitrogen - The Element
  • 1:04 Nitrogen Cycle
  • 2:35 Release of Nitrogen
  • 3:14 Other Uses of Nitrogen
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Robson

Kelly has taught High School Science and Applied Communications. She holds an Education Specialist Degree in Ed. Leadership.

Nitrogen is a vital element for all living things. This lesson walks through some of the properties of nitrogen, the nitrogen cycle, and other uses of nitrogen.

Nitrogen - The Element

Nitrogen is a non-metallic element found in group 15 on the periodic table. It has an atomic number of 7, meaning it has 7 protons, and it has an atomic mass of 14.007 amu (atomic mass units).

Nitrogen is usually found in a gaseous state and makes up 78% of Earth's atmosphere. There are actually about 4,000 trillion tons of nitrogen gas in Earth's atmosphere. Nitrogen is an inert element which means that it does not readily react with other elements. However, nitrogen is most useful when it is mixed with other elements.

Nitrogen is vital for all living things. Animals and plants both need nitrogen to make proteins. Proteins make up everything we need to live. Therefore, in a very direct and indirect way, all living things need nitrogen. However, on its own, nitrogen is usually found in an unusable gaseous form. Plants and animals are unable to obtain nitrogen while it is in gaseous form.

Nitrogen Cycle

In order for plants and animals to obtain it, nitrogen needs to be turned into either nitrates, nitrogen compounds mixed with oxygen, or ammonium, nitrogen compounds mixed with hydrogen. The nitrogen cycle is a series of different processes that take place to make nitrates and ammonium to be used and then, at times, returned back to the cycle to be used again.

Nitrogen can enter the cycle in different ways. Nitrogen fixation is one process where nitrogen enters the soil literally out of thin air. This process uses both nitrogen-fixing organisms found in the soil to convert the nitrogen gas into usable nitrates. Lightning also brings nitrogen right to the soil. Nitrification is another process in which ammonia that is already in the soil is converted to usable nitrates by certain bacteria that live in the soil.

Plants bring up the inorganic nitrates through their roots. Once inside the plant, it is mixed with other chemicals to once again create organic substances such as enzymes, proteins, and chlorophyll. Since chlorophyll is the substance that gives plants their green color, it makes sense that everything is a little greener after a lightning storm.

Plants will continue to use the nitrogen until they either die or are eaten. When a plant dies, it will decompose and return the nitrogen back into the organic form of nitrogen. When animals eat plants, they return the unused organic form of nitrogen through their waste. Since it is returned back into organic nitrogen, the process of turning it back into inorganic usable nitrogen will begin again.

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