How to Make Nitrous Oxide

A detailed report into the preparation of nitrous oxide.

Nitrous oxide is often widely known as laughing gas for reasons that become apparent on inhaling it. It is a simple compound of two nitrogen atoms bonded covalently to an oxygen atom. The bond between the two nitrogen atoms is a triple bond and the bond between one of the nitrogen atoms and the oxygen atom is a single bond.

It has a characteristic taste and aroma, is colourless though not flammable. Among its many applications, the most important are probably those utilised in dentistry and also in surgery. It is a potent inhalation anaesthetic. Its common name is laughing gas, owing in part to the aetherial effects experienced by the patient. It has since achieved a place of prestige amongst recreational users for the sense of euphoria it provides. The second most well known use for nitrous oxide is to increase the power of motor engines and rockets due to its nature as an oxidising agent.

Nitrous oxide reacts with atoms of oxygen to form nitric oxide. The concentration of nitric oxide in the atmosphere has an effect of moderating the size of the ozone layer. Because it is a triatomic compound, nitrous oxide contributes to the greenhouse effect and therefore global warming on a large scale.

Nitrous oxide, along with water, is a product of the thermal decomposition of ammonium nitrate. This reaction is difficult to moderate safely in a direct method. In order to achieve the same results but without the risk of the reaction getting out of control, it is usual to mix sodium nitrate with ammonium chloride and heat that mixture instead. Under no circumstances should this be performed, however. The ideal temperature for this reaction is about 480K. When this is done, the mixture is constantly being cooled.

Filtration is the next step in the synthesis of nitrous oxide. Higher oxidation states must be removed. Some of the unreacted ammonium nitrate should also be removed. Various stages of acid and alkali are utilised to remove successive impurities from the desired nitrous oxide. Ammonia is produced too as a side reaction in the process. This must be extracted too from the mixture.

One potential synthetic pathway for nitrous oxide production involves catalytic oxidation of ammonia. There is much research underway in this field of synthetic organic chemistry. If a catalyst is not used in any attempt to perform this reaction, nitrogen gas is produced instead. An alternative synthetic method requires nitric acid to be heated in the presence of sulphamic acid.


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