Oxygen and nitrogen are two of a handful of elemental superstars of life. Without them, life would not be possible. In some ways, these two elements are very similar, but they are also very different.
Oxygen and nitrogen atoms differ in only one proton and one electron. In chemical reactions, the important subatomic particle is the electron, and oxygen has eight while nitrogen has seven. In the last two days, we talked about the difference that one electron makes. Oxygen and nitrogen make up about 99% of our atmosphere, with nitrogen composing nearly three-quarters of our air. So why is nitrogen’s percentage so high compared to oxygen?
As we said previously, the triple bond of a nitrogen molecule requires more than twice as much energy to break as the double bond of an oxygen molecule. The oxygen bond can be broken to allow combustion oxidation and energize our bodies. On the other hand, the nitrogen bond is not easy to break, but plants require nitrogen for photosynthesis and growth. What is the solution?
Lightning breaks the nitrogen bond allowing rain to wash nitrogen to the ground. Plants such as beans, peas, and alfalfa, which we call legumes, have microorganisms on their roots that extract nitrogen from the air. That enriches the soil with nitrogen while providing for the legumes. More than a century ago, scientists found a way to extract nitrogen from the air to produce ammonia. That process enabled fertilizer production, which today allows farmers to produce enough food for the world’s population.
It is not easy to break the nitrogen bond so it can combine with other elements, but with 78% of the atmosphere being nitrogen, there is no shortage. So why is our atmosphere mostly nitrogen? Since it is only about 21% oxygen, wouldn’t it be better to have more oxygen so we could breathe easier? The answer is that nitrogen stability is essential for our safety. Wildfires have been a significant problem in recent years. If the atmosphere consisted of a very high percentage of oxygen, fires would be more common and dangerous. If the atmosphere consisted of 100% oxygen, all it would take is one lightning strike to set the whole planet on fire.
Remarkably, we have the correct percentage of elements in our atmosphere. We have the right amount of oxygen to allow respiration to power our bodies and combustion to power our vehicles and industry and heat our homes. At the same time, we have the right amount of nitrogen to prevent uncontrolled combustion leading to the destruction of life. We have just a small amount of carbon dioxide, which plants need for photosynthesis. Plants use CO2 and generate oxygen to keep the gases in balance. The balance is amazingly precise as long as humans don’t generate enough carbon dioxide to mess it up.
During the dinosaur age, the oxygen level was higher, on the order of around one-third of the atmosphere. That allowed the enormous animals to prepare the Earth for humans. Now we have the precise balance to sustain human life and advanced society. The question is, did the features of oxygen and nitrogen and the balance between them happen by accident, or was it part of an intelligent plan? We think the best explanation is that an intelligent Planner of life created it.
We previously discussed the discovery that hydroxyl radicals are natural agents that clean the atmosphere. They help remove some of the pollution that humans cause. The hydroxyl radicals are produced by lightning. People often see lightning as a harmful and destructive agent on planet Earth. However, lightning is a useful tool in God’s creation.
NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” for September 29, 2021, featured an interesting article about a type of lightning called gigantic jets. The gigantic jet shown on the APOD post moved roughly 70 kilometers in just under a second. These gigantic jets are different from the common lightning traveling from cloud to cloud or cloud to ground that we all have seen. We are less familiar with other types of lightning known as blue jets, red sprites, and these gigantic jets.
As we have said before, lightning is also part of the nitrogen-fixing system in Earth’s atmosphere. Lightning converts the nitrogen that makes up 78% of our air into the nitrates essential for plant growth. Thus, lightning is a useful tool in God’s creation to help produce our food and clean our air.
Lightning and hydroxyl radicals are among the lesser-known agents that clean our atmosphere. Hydroxyl radicals are composed of a single oxygen atom combined with a hydrogen atom. Since the valence of these two atoms is minus two and plus one, respectively, the combined charge is minus one. That means that the OH- radical will attach itself to any plus-charged atom or molecule. Numerous molecules in our atmosphere offer a positive charge, such as carbon monoxide and methane. Also, many organic compounds have loosely held hydrogen atoms. When the hydroxyl radical attaches itself to another hydrogen atom, the product is water.
Even if you don’t understand all of the chemistry involved here, it should be evident that the materials the hydroxyl radicals attach themselves to are common atmospheric pollutants. Hydroxyl is an air cleaning compound designed to remove natural contaminants and human-caused pollution as well. In typical situations, the concentration of hydroxyl radicals is a few ppt (parts per trillion). Keeping our atmosphere free of damaging pollutants requires much more than that.
Recent discoveries have shown that lightning produces significant numbers of hydroxyls. In 2012, a NASA jet flying through storm clouds over Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas detected hydroxyl concentrations of thousands of ppt. Electricity from lightning can produce enough hydroxyl radicals to keep our air clean of any natural pollutants and help to reduce human-caused pollution.
We have said before that lightning takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and produces nitrates that provide essential nutrients for plants. Now we know that lightning is also indispensable as an air cleaning tool. With lightning and hydroxyl radicals, God has designed a tool that not only allows plants to provide our food but also cleans our air.
All life forms on planet Earth need nitrates to build proteins and DNA. We get our nitrates from the plants and seeds that we eat. Plants absorb nitrates from the soil through their roots. The nitrates in the soil come from rain that has absorbed nitrates from the air through which it falls. The nitrates in the air come from the action of lightning. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, and lightning takes some of the nitrogen and catalyzes it into a bond with oxygen to make nitrates. That is why we need lightning.
A surprising thing about this complex system is that the lightning is far more abundant than we realize. Lightning strikes the Earth around 1000 times every second. Above the clouds, in the upper atmosphere, there are continuous lightning types that we don’t see from Earth’s surface. They are called elves, sprites, blue jets, and gigantic jets, depending on their color and shape. There is a voltage difference between the ground and the ionosphere, which varies from 200,000 volts to 500,000 volts. Even in fair weather, there is a constant flow of current, which scientists believe is caused by the spinning of Earth’s core. All of this adds up to a total of over three million lightning strikes a day, and each produces nitrates to sustain life. The jet stream carries these nitrates around the planet, providing a natural fertilizer in places where electrical storms rarely occur.
We all know that lightning can be dangerous. Each year people are killed, and a great deal of property damage occurs because of lightning. We don’t usually consider the benefits of this powerful force. Nitrogen in the soil is essential for plants to grow and lightning is a natural method of adding nitrogen to the soil.
Although lightning can be dangerous, it also produces materials that are critical to life. All living things depend on the chemical element nitrogen. Your body contains molecules known as proteins. Proteins are made up of several elements, including nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential for proteins, but it is very hard to make nitrogen into proteins. Even though nitrogen makes up 78 percent of our atmosphere, we don’t get any nitrogen from the air we breathe. With each breath, we inhale and exhale nitrogen without using it. The nitrogen in the atmosphere has three electron bonds between the atoms, and that is a very strong and stable chemical arrangement. It takes an enormous amount of energy to break those bonds to free the nitrogen.
When lightning slices through the atmosphere, it knocks electrons from nitrogen atoms. The atoms are then free to combine with oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere forming nitrates. Rain carries this new compound to the ground enriching the soil with nitrates which are the building blocks of proteins. Plants synthesize the nitrates into proteins. When animals eat the plants, they get proteins. When we eat the plants or animals, we get the proteins we need to build more proteins.
Most of us have had some experience with lightning. The chances are that our experiences have been terrifying and destructive, and we may view lightning as a bad thing. You may wonder if we need lightning. The short answer is, “Yes.” Lightning is a good thing, and there are many things we are still learning about it.
Lightning helps produce the nitrates and other nitrogen compounds that are needed by all living things on Earth. The process is called “nitrogen fixation, ” and it is vital to our very existence. Water droplets in the air carry an electric charge. That charge can accumulate to dangerous levels unless there is a way to neutralize it. That’s where lightning comes in.
One of my favorite demonstrations as a physics teacher was to get a very small flow of water going from a faucet and then bring a charged rod up to the column of water. The stream of water will bend in response to the charge. That is because the polar nature of the water molecule allows it to have electrical properties. Because of water’s electrical property, lightning is generated to release nitrogen from the air and deposit it in the crust of the Earth as nitrates and other nitrogen compounds that plants need to grow. The plants then feed and protect the animals and us.
Low Earth orbit satellites and high flying airplanes have recently made us aware of other properties of lightning. We have learned that red sprites occur and they have been photographed above large thunderstorms. Other upper atmosphere lightning phenomena include blue jets and terrestrial gamma flashes. Scientists are studying the highly complex nature of lightning to understand how the system works.
The Bible makes many comments about lightning. It tells us that lightning is made with water (rain) even though people at that time totally ascribed lightning to supernatural causes. (See Jeremiah 10:13 and 51:16). Lightning is referred to as a tool of God. (See Job 28:26; 36:30; 37:3, 11, 15; 38:24, 25, 35.)