Oxygen is represented by symbol O and is vital sustaining life on Earth. It is a nonmetallic gas forming a part of the chalcogen group in the periodic table.  The nonmetallic gas is known to comprise around 21% of the planet’s atmosphere. The nonmetallic element is estimated to make up around 49% of Earth’s crust in the form of oxides. The element also constitutes around 65% of the human body.  There is no denying the fact that it is one of the most vital elements in the planet’s atmosphere for its ability to sustain life not to forget one of the most plentiful. We respire oxygen which is absorbed from lungs in the blood stream and reaches every cell in the body where it oxidizes (burns) food to release energy and heat so needed for performing the daily tasks of life. It is not only important in the biology of life but also in sustaining industrial process where combustion is needed.  The nonmetallic element is essential for combustion.

Properties of oxygen

Discovered by Joseph Priestly in 1774, oxygen is a highly reactive element which forms oxides with most of the elements and compounds except noble gases like helium, neon, argon, etc.  It has atomic number 8 in the periodic table. It is estimated one fifth of air is oxygen in terms of volume. The highly reactive element is colorless, tasteless and odorless under normal conditions.  In its liquid state, it has a light blue color. Molecular oxygen is known to be present in the atmosphere only. It is fairly soluble in water which makes aerobic life possible in sea, lakes and rivers. Of the few paramagnetic gases, oxygen is said to be the most paramagnetic.

  1. Physical properties of oxygen

Amongst reactive elements, oxygen is said to be 2nd most electronegative element after fluorine. Solubility of oxygen in water depends on the temperature which is evident in high temperatures of summer when fish start to die. At temperature of 25 deg C, oxygen has solubility of 40mg/L water.   It is said to condense at a temperature of -182 deg C and freezes at -218.79 deg C.   All oxygen present in the atmosphere is because of photosynthesis where living beings take in oxygen for respiration and exhale carbon dioxide which is transformed by the green plants in the presence of sunlight into oxygen.  It is estimated that around 3 parts of oxygen by volume could be dissolved into 100 parts of fresh water at temperature of 20 deg C.  Dissolved oxygen is vital for sustaining marine life.

  1. Chemical properties of oxygen

Oxygen being a nonmetallic element displays behavior typical of such elements having large electronegative values and the electron affinity. With two half filled orbits, oxygen and its compounds are characterized by a negative oxidation state. When the orbits are filled by electron transfer, the oxide ion O2- is called into existence. Acceptance of electrons through transfer either complete or partial defines a typical behavior of an oxidizing agent. Upon reacting with an electron-donating substance, oxidation state of the agent is said to undergo change to a lower side. Under normal conditions, oxygen is said to have two allotropic forms —O2 and O3. In the diatomic O2 structure, the electrons are unpaired existing in anti-bonding orbits. It is confirmed by paramagnetic behavior of the electrons.O3 extreme reactivity is attributed to the fact that one of the three oxygen atoms is in atomic state.  When this atom is reacted it gets dissociated from the O3 with molecular oxygen (O2) left behind.

Uses of oxygen

Oxygen is used in wide range of industries where oxygen is needed for sustaining combustion process.  However, molecular oxygen that we breathe from the atmosphere has purity of only 21% but O2 required for industrial processes must have purity which is not less than 99%. For industrial production of oxygen with such high purity we would require an efficient process. Cryogenic distillation is one such process that is used globally for generating over 100millon tons of oxygen every year. The process involves liquefaction, separation and distillation of atmospheric air to achieve generation of oxygen with the desired purity.

There are other air separation techniques as well such as pressure swing adsorption (PSA) and membrane separation. However, the techniques are not considered efficient enough for producing high purity oxygen on an industrial scale.  It is the reason most of the industries opt for onsite oxygen gas plants based on fractional distillation for captive application in steel, metal, chemical industries, etc.

Industry-wise consumption of oxygen

It is estimated oxygen is consumed in a great measure in steel industry accounting for around 55% of all commercially produced oxygen. Chemical industry is the 2nd industry consuming around 25% of all industrially generated oxygen.  Industries consuming the most oxygen are given below:

  • Refining , melting and making of steel & other metals
  • Manufacturing of chemicals through oxidation
  • Rocket propulsion
  • Medical & life support
  • Mining ,paper making & glass blowing

Most of the industries in these sectors get uninterrupted supply of oxygen through installation of onsite gas generation which, in most cases, is based on cryogenic air separation process.

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Also Read: How to Produce Medical Grade Oxygen?