Oxygen: the essentials

Oxygen is a Group 16 element. While about one fifth of the atmosphere is oxygen gas, the atmosphere of Mars contains only about 0.15% oxygen. Oxygen is the third most abundant element found in the sun, and it plays a part in the carbon-nitrogen cycle, one process responsible for stellar energy production. Oxygen in excited states is responsible for the bright red and yellow-green colours of the aurora. About two thirds of the human body, and nine tenths of water, is oxygen. The gas is colourless, odourless, and tasteless. Liquid and solid oxygen are pale blue (see picture above) and strongly paramagnetic (contains unpaired electrons).

Table: basic information about and classifications of oxygen.

Oxygen: historical information

Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, Carl Scheele at 1774 in England, Sweden. Origin of name: from the Greek words "oxy genes" meaning "acid" (sharp) and "forming" (acid former).

Leonardo da Vinci suggested that air consists of at least two different gases. Before then, air was felt to be an element in its own right. He was also aware that one of these gases supported both flames and life. Oxygen was prepared by several workers before 1772 but these workers did not recognise it as an element. Joseph Priestley is generally credited with its discovery (who made oxygen by heating lead or mercury oxides), but Carl Wilhelm Scheele also reported it independently.

The behaviour of oxygen and nitrogen as components of air led to the advancement of the phlogiston theory of combustion, which influenced chemists for a century or so, and which delayed an understanding of the nature of air for many years.

Sometime prior to the autumn of 1803, the Englishman John Dalton was able to explain the results of some of his studies by assuming that matter is composed of atoms and that all samples of any given compound consist of the same combination of these atoms. Dalton also noted that in series of compounds, the ratios of the masses of the second element that combine with a given weight of the first element can be reduced to small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). This was further evidence for atoms. Dalton's theory of atoms was published by Thomas Thomson in the 3rd edition of his System of Chemistry in 1807 and in a paper about strontium oxalates published in the Philosophical Transactions. Dalton published these ideas himself in the following year in the New System of Chemical Philosophy. The symbol used by Dalton for oxygen is shown below. [See History of Chemistry, Sir Edward Thorpe, volume 1, Watts & Co, London, 1914.]

Dalton's symbol for oxygen

Oxygen: physical properties

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Oxygen: orbital properties

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Isolation: there is not normally any need ot make oxygen in the laboratory as it is readily available commercially or through in-house air liquefaction plants. However the decomposition of potassium chlorate is one route to O2 and decomposition of potassium permanganate is another. In addition, electrolysis of KOH using nickel electrodes gives clean oxygen.

2KClO3 (400°C) → 2KCl + 3O2

2KMnO4 (214°C) → K2MnO4 + MnO2 + O2

Ozone (O3), the other allotrope of oxygen, is made by silent electric discharge through oxygen flowing through a cooled system. This can give up to a10% proportion of ozone and the ozone is purified by fractional liquefaction (with care!).

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oxygen atomic number