Nitrous oxide is a colorless and tasteless gas with a slightly sweet odor. Under the name laughing gas, it is known primarily from medicine as a painkilling and anesthetic agent.
Nitrous oxide is produced naturally by oxidation processes in oceans and soils and is released from there into the atmosphere. It has no color or taste and dissolves well in cold water. Although it is not combustible itself, it has a fire-promoting effect because it can oxidize other substances.
The gas has an analgesic effect from a concentration of approx. 20% in the breath. Higher concentrations have an anesthetic effect. It is therefore used in medicine as an anesthetic, among other things.
Its name derives from the fact that the patient anesthetized with nitrous oxide experiences a euphoric state while laughing.
Nitrous oxide falls into the group of nitrogens, which are an essential element for good plant growth. For this reason, it is used on a large scale in industrial agriculture as a fertilizer. However, with problematic effects on the environment: N₂O has a high global warming potential due to its longevity: about 300 times as high as carbon dioxide. It thus contributes significantly to global warming.
Nitrous oxide is a gas that affects the climate. At the moment, however, there is no official limit value for nitrous oxide concentrations in outdoor air.
An occupational exposure limit (OEL) of 100 ppm applies to workplaces exposed to nitrous oxide.
When laughing gas is inhaled, a numbing effect occurs after a few seconds, accompanied by hallucination, feelings of warmth and moments of happiness. However, this state lasts only a few minutes.
Higher concentrations cause numbness and dizziness. Injuries from falls are possible.
At a concentration of 90% or more in the breath, unconsciousness occurs and there is a risk of brain damage due to oxygen deficiency.
Frequent exposure to excessive levels of N2O in the air we breathe can cause long-term damage to our internal organs and nervous system.
Abuse of pure gas as an intoxicant may cause confusion, nausea, hypotension, and circulatory arrest.
Nitrous oxide containers should only be stored and used in well-ventilated rooms, otherwise there is a risk of suffocation. When nitrous oxide is filled, there is a risk of frostbite on the contact surfaces (skin, mucous membrane) due to the coldness of the gas.
Nitrous oxide is formed during natural oxidation processes in seas and soils. However, it is also produced by man through artificial fertilization: if there is a lack of oxygen in the soil, the nitrogen (NO₂) in the fertilizer is deprived of oxygen and is converted into nitrous oxide. This is how the gas is eventually released into the atmosphere.
Nitrous oxide is produced artificially by decomposing ammonium nitrate or by reacting ammonia with nitric acid.
Nitrous oxide is mainly used in agriculture and medicine. However, the food industry also uses it because of its good fat solubility - here it is approved as additive E 942. In addition, nitrous oxide is used in drive technology, because its use increases the performance of engines.
Nitrous oxide is measured by means of a sensor based on infrared absorption. The sensitivity of the sensor allows to detect even small changes of the atmospheric concentration in the range of ±100 µg/m³. Cross sensitivities do not exist.