Gaseous chemical element, chemical symbol N, atomic number 7. A colourless, odourless, tasteless gas, it makes up 78% of Earth's atmosphere and is a constituent of all living matter. As the nearly unreactive diatomic molecule N, it is useful as an inert atmosphere or to dilute other gases. Nitrogen is commercially produced by distillation of liquefied air. Nitrogen fixation, achieved naturally by soil microbes and industrially by the Haber-Bosch process, converts it to water-soluble compounds (including ammonia and nitrates). Industrially, ammonia is the starting material for most other nitrogen compounds (especially nitrates and nitrites), whose main uses are in agricultural fertilizers and explosives. In compounds, nitrogen usually has valence 3 or 5. It forms several oxides including nitrous oxide (NO; laughing gas), nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO), and other forms (such as NO and NO). Some of the nitrogen oxides, often referred to generically as NO, are notorious as contributors to urban air pollution. Other compounds include the nitrides, exceptionally hard materials made from nitrogen and a metal; cyanides; azides, used in detonators and percussion caps; and thousands of organic compounds containing nitrogen in functional groups or in a linear or ring structure (see heterocyclic compound). See also nitrogen cycle.
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