Nitrous Oxide And Global Warming

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Global warming is believed to be due to the increased use of fossil fuel resources, the production of industrial chemicals, and the use of chemical fertilizers.

Among the greenhouse gases that are produced by burning fossil fuels and the use of chemical fertilizers, carbon dioxide is the gas most associated with global warming; however, nitrous oxide is also implicated. It is believed that N2O is the cause of about 6 percent of current global warming. The amount of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere is of great concern, because a molecule of nitrous oxide can absorb over 300 times the amount of infrared energy absorbed by a carbon dioxide molecule. This means that a much smaller amount of nitrous oxide can contribute immensely more to global warming than carbon dioxide. A small increase in the level of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere can have a major impact upon the global environment.

The amount of nitrous oxide in the Earth's atmosphere is increasing. In the troposphere, it is a long-lived (up to 120 years) inert gas that can be removed by reactions with sunlight. It is removed from the Earth's atmosphere mainly in the stratosphere by photolysis. Nitrous oxide is contributing to global warming because it is increasing in volume. The amount in the atmosphere increased to over 1 percent 1940-2000.

The most important natural sources of nitrous oxide are found in the gaseous emissions of microorganisms and decaying vegetation; rain forests and the oceans naturally emit significant quantities of the gas. If the soil is nearly saturated, it emits nitrous oxide. Different soils emit different amounts of the gas. If the levels were high enough, it would harm crops, but these levels have not been reached. Human sources include nylon, nitric acid production, and adipic acid production. The burning of fossil fuels is another source, but not as significant a source as was first suspected. Probably only one percent of the current levels of nitrous oxide in the Earth's atmosphere are due to burning fossil fuels.

Other sources of nitrous oxide are burning vegetation, gasoline engine exhaust that is reduced with a catalytic converter, lightening activity, and sunspot activity. Regardless of the source, the current trend is for nitrous oxide to continue increasing. With its disproportionate contribution to global warming, it has a very negative consequences. Modern chemical fertilizers are another source of nitrous oxide. Most of them use some kind of nitrate compound(s) to feed plants. Agricultural usage has been growing as the world's population has rapidly increased its demand for food.

SEE ALSO: Agriculture; Automobiles; Global Warming; Greenhouse Gases.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. T.M. Addiscott, Nitrate, Agriculture, and the Environment (CAB International, 2005); M.S.S. Clark and A.L. Brunick, Handbook of Nitrous Oxide and Oxygen Sedation (Elsevier Health Sciences, 2007); Earl Davis and Diane Davis, Supercharging, Turbocharging, and Nitrous Oxide Performance Handbook (MBI Publishing, 2001); S.C. Jarvis, ed., Gaseous Nitrogen Emissions from Grasslands (CAB International, 1997); Joe Pettitt and B.J. Killeen, How to Install and Use Nitrous Oxide Injection Systems for Maximum Horsepower (CarTech, Inc., 1998).

Andrew J. Waskey Dalton State College

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