What is nitrous ised for ?
I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder working gas
of delight". So wrote poet Robert Southey of nitrous
oxide, N2O, also known as nitrogen oxide, dinitrogen monoxide,
hyponitrous acid anhydride and facticious air. However, its
most well known name is 'laughing gas' due to its intoxicating
effects when inhaled.
Nitrous oxide, N2O, is a colorless, almost odorless gas, that
was first discovered in 1793 by the English scientist and
clergyman Joseph Priestley (who was also famous for being
the first to isolate other important gases such as oxygen,
carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and sulfur dioxide).
Priestley made N2O by heating ammonium nitrate in the presence
of iron filings, and then passing the gas that came off (NO)
through water to remove toxic by-products. The reaction he
2NO + H20 + Fe N2O + Fe(OH)2
After initial trials, Priestley thought that N2O could be
used as a preserving agent, but this proved unsuccessful
Following Priestley's discovery, Humphrey Davy of the Pneumatic
Institute in Bristol, England, experimented with the physiological
properties of the gas, such as its effects upon respiration.
He even administered the gas to visitors to the institute,
and after watching the amusing effects on people who inhaled
it, coined the term 'laughing gas'! Davy even noted the anaesthetic
effects of the gas: "As nitrous oxide in its extensive
operation appears capable of destroying physical pain, it
may probably be used with advantage during surgical operations
in which no great effusion of blood takes place".
However, despite this observation, for the next 40 years or
so the primary use of N2O was for recreational enjoyment and
public shows. So called nitrous oxide capers took place in
travelling medicine shows and carnivals, where the public
would pay a small price to inhale a minute's worth of the
gas. People would laugh and act silly until the effect of
the drug came to its abrupt end, when they would stand about
in confusion. Many famous people (of their time) and dignitaries
from Clifton and Bristol came to inhale Davy's purified nitrous
oxide for recreational purposes.
Nitrous Oxide as an Anaesthetic
Nitrous oxide found a more scientific use as an anesthetic
in clinical dentistry and medicine in the early 1840s. The
story goes that at that time, a medical school dropout called
Gardner Quincy Colton went around the country putting on nitrous
oxide exhibitions. In 1844 he happened to put on a demonstration
in Hartford, Connecticut, and in the audience that day was
a local dentist named Horace Wells. Dr. Wells watched with
interest as one of the volunteers, a man named Samuel Cooley,
inhaled the gas, and, while still under the effects of the
N2O, injured his leg when he staggered into some nearby benches.
When he went back to his seat next to Dr. Wells, Cooley appeared
to be unaware of the injury until the effects of the gas wore
off. Dr. Wells immediately realised that N2O might possess
painkilling qualities, and so after the demonstration, Wells
approached Colton and invited him to participate in an experiment
the next day. Colton agreed, administered nitrous oxide to
Dr. Wells while another local dentist extracted one of Wells'
molars. Dr. Wells experienced no pain during the procedure,
and the birth of N2O as a dental and medical painkiller had
Early surgical operations, such as this one from 1850, used
ether as an anesthetic. This was dangerous, because ether
is highly explosive. So a new anesthetic was needed that was
not so dangerous to use
The story does not end happily, however. In January 1845,
Dr. Wells demonstrated his discovery of the effects of nitrous
oxide at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. A patient was
anesthetised and a tooth was extracted, but during the demonstration
the patient complained that he felt some discomfort. Even
though the experiment had been successful (in that the patient
had only felt slight discomfort and not excruciating pain),
the suspicious audience were unhappy, and booed Wells from
the stage. This public humiliation eventually led to Dr. Wells
losing his reputation as a profession dentist, and finally
to his suicide three years later. Ironically, 150 years after
his premature death, his discovery would be adopted by dental
practices worldwide, and Wells would be given the accolade
- the "Discoverer of Anesthesia".
Nitrous oxide is a very safe and popular agent still utilized
by dentists today. It is much less toxic than alternatives,
such as chloroform, with far less risk of explosion than ether.
The main use for N2O is usually as a mild sedative and analgesic.
It helps to allay anxiety that many patients may have toward
dental treatment, and it offers some degree of painkilling
A Boost for Fast Cars
At room temperature, N2O is quite unreactive with most substances,
including alkali metals, halogens, and even ozone. It is therefore
widely used as a propellant in aerosol cans in place of the
CFCs which can damage the ozone layer. When heated sufficiently,
however, N2O decomposes exothermically to N2 and O2.
If this reaction occurs in the combustion chamber of an automobile,
3 moles of gas would be produced from 2 moles, providing an
extra boost to the piston, as well as liberating more heat.
It also has a number of other benefits. The increased oxygen
provides more efficient combustion of fuel, the nitrogen buffers
the increased cylinder pressure controlling the combustion,
and the latent heat of vaporisation of the N2O reduces the
intake temperature. Therefore N2O is occasionally injected
into the fuel lines of racing cars to give more power to the
engine and to give the car exceptional acceleration.
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