One-Electron Difference Between Oxygen and Nitrogen

One-Electron Difference Between Oxygen and Nitrogen

How does a one-electron difference between oxygen and nitrogen allow life to exist on our planet? Why does the correct mix between those two elements in our atmosphere make it possible for us to be here?

Yesterday, we talked about covalent bonding in oxygen and nitrogen. We said that an oxygen atom needs to share two electrons with another oxygen atom to make a stable oxygen molecule. However, nitrogen needs to share three electrons with another nitrogen atom to complete the valence shell and create stability. So how can a single electron difference between oxygen and nitrogen be a big deal?

For oxygen or nitrogen to combine with other elements to form new compounds essential for life, the covalent bond between them must be broken. It takes about double the energy to break the triple bond between two nitrogen atoms as to break the double bond between two oxygen atoms. That means oxygen can be released to form other compounds much more easily.

What does it take to break the oxygen bond and combine it with another element?
Apply some heat to combustible material, and you will find out. You will get fire, which is a chemical reaction involving rapid oxidation of the burning material. Much slower oxidation occurs when oxygen in your blood combines with nutrients in your body, giving you energy and generating body heat. Another slow form of oxidation is when iron combines with oxygen to form iron oxide, or rust.

If it were not possible to release oxygen from its molecular bond with relative ease, we would not have combustion to heat our homes, run our vehicles, or energize our bodies. Life would not be possible. However, nitrogen bonds are much harder to break, and nitrogen is also essential for life. Tomorrow we will look at how the one-electron difference between oxygen and nitrogen enables life on planet Earth.

— Roland Earnst © 2022