Since its introduction to the scientific world, the element Neon has proven to be an important part of science, technology and medicine. As one of the first inert gases to be discovered, it was instrumental in providing valuable information on the make-up of the earth’s atmosphere. Neon has been a valuable asset in modern industry and medicine, as well as a popular method of advertisement. Although it is not as abundant or as popular as some of the other chemical elements, it has played an important role in the progress of some of today’s scientific and medical discoveries.
Neon is a colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas. Its symbol is Ne, and its atomic number is 10. Neon’s position on the periodic table is group 8; period 2. The gas’s melting point is -248.59 degrees C and boiling point is -246.08 degrees C. The atomic mass of Neon is 20.179. Neon occurs naturally in our atmosphere, as does nitrogen, oxygen and argon. However, with these three elements making up approximately 99.966 percent of air, neon only accounts for 0.0182 percent.
Neon is obtained from the air during fractional distillation (Newton, 355). The first step in this process is to change containers of air to liquid. The liquid air is then heated. As it heats, each element in the air is changed from a liquid back to a gas at a different temperature. Neon is the portion of air that changes to gas at -245.92 degrees C.
In 1898, neon was discovered by two British chemists- William Ramsay (1852-1916) and Morris Travers (1872-1961). Ramsay eventually found that the nitrogen extracted from chemical reactions was pure, but nitrogen attained from the air had small quantities of unknown gas (Smith, 703). Ramsay and Travers were studying the tiny amount of gas that remained in the air after oxygen, nitrogen, and argon had been removed, and discovered a fourth gas.
Ramsay’s son was one of the first people to hear about the discovery of the new gas. He wanted to name the new element ‘novum,’ meaning “new.” Ramsay liked the idea, however he suggested using the Greek word for “new,” ‘neos.’ Therefore, the element was named ‘neon’ (Newton, 355).
In the noble gases group, there are 6 rare gas elements that are found in small amounts in the air. They include helium (He), neon (Ne), argon (Ar), krypton (Kr), xenon (Xe), and radon (Rn) . They all possess similar properties: colorless, odorless, and tasteless. These 6 gases are known as monatomic gases. This simply means that they exist as individual atoms. Combined, they make up roughly one percent of the atmosphere (Thomas, 3054). Helium, neon, and argon do not mix with any other atoms to form compounds. The lack of reactivity in these rare gases is due to their electron arrangement. It has been found that the noble gases are harmless to the environment or living organisms. The one exception is radon, as it is radioactive.
Most of the noble gases have been uncovered in minerals and meteorites, but are seldom found there (Smith, np). Even stars much larger than the sun produce neon (Neon, Encarta). They are more commonly found in the atmosphere. Some scientists think that these gases have been released into the earth’s atmosphere a long time ago, as a consequence of the decay of radioactive elements in the earth’s crust. (Thomas, 3055).
All of the noble gases are commercially acquired from liquid air. When the temperature of the liquid air is raised, the gases boil off from the mixture at specific temperatures. Then they are separated and purified.
Most of the noble gases are used in lighting applications. Neon, of course, is used in neon signs. Argon is used in regular incandescent light bulbs. Xenon and krypton are both used in strobe lights. Neon, however, is the most commonly known for lighting (Thomas, np).An isotope is two or more forms of an element. Neon has three isotopes; neon-21, neon-22, neon-23. The mass number is what makes one isotope differ from another. The mass number is the number of protons plus neutrons in the nucleus of an atom of the element. The number of protons determines the element, but the number of neutrons in the atom of an element can vary. Each variation is an isotope (Newton, 356).
A radioactive isotope is one that breaks apart and gives off a form of radiation. These are made when small particles stick in the atoms and make them radioactive. Neon has three radioactive isotopes; neon-18, neon-19, and neon-24. All of these are produced in particle accelerators, none occur in nature. They also have a short life; the longest one, neon-24, lasts 3.38 minutes (Smith, np).
Neon in its gas form is most commonly used in neon advertising signs. The first neon sign was invented by French chemist Georges Claude (1870-1960) and first used by a Paris barber in 1912(Newton, 357). This method of advertising became quite popular by the 1920’s. We have all seen the orange-red glow of neon in a store window. This effect occurs as electrical currents overrun the inert gas atoms with electrons, hitting neon’s atoms out of their orbits. The electrons crash with other free electrons, sending them back to the atoms. As the electrons are absorbed into the atom, energy is given off as light. Neon tubes are powered by voltages in the 2,000 to 15,000 volt range. If a neon tube is not properly positioned, wired, and protected, the voltage is a shock and fire hazard (Krypton Neon, Greenburg).
Neon is also used in making high-voltage indicators, television tubes, and lightning arrestors. In lightning arrestors, when lightning strikes, neon is ionized and allows the current to flow into the ground. Neon is also used in making gas lasers for use in industry and medicine. These high-powered lasers are very effective at cutting plastic and metal. Certain types of surgery also require the advanced properties of neon lasers. (Knapp, 37). Liquid neon has over 40 times the refrigeration capacity of liquid helium, and has more than three times that of liquid hydrogen (Krypton Neon, Greenburg). It is extra useful as a refrigerant because of its high latent vaporization (Smith, np). It can be used as a solid or slush, depending on the cooling efficiency required.
Experiments show that neon is potentially useful in special breathing mixtures for deep-sea diving and space travel. Neon’s properties are similar to those of helium, however, neon doesn’t warp the voice. Also, neon has lower thermal conductivity, which decreases the diver’s heat loss to the surrounding water (Thomas, 3055).
Neon is used in some electron tubes, in Geiger-Muller counters, in spark-plug lamps, and in warning indicators on high voltage electric lines. A tiny wattage makes visible light in neon-filled lamps; these lamps are used as economical and safety lights (Smith, np). All lights in discharge tubes are generally referred to as “neon “lights. But, neon only gives off a reddish-orange glow. Each of the rare gases produces a different “neon” color (Knapp, 37). For example, helium produces a yellow “neon” light when an electric current flows through.
As I have learned, neon is an important ingredient in the recipe of life. Although it is only present in a small percentage, neon is a vital element in the chemical structure of the atmosphere. Its uses range from commercial, to scientific, to medical. Of course the most common use of neon is in commercial lighting, which we see every day from the corner store to the busy streets of Las Vegas. However, with the modern world’s advanced scientific knowledge and technology, new applications for neon are being discovered every day.
Knapp, Brian. (2002). Elements. Danbury: Grolier Educational, Inc. (37).
“Krypton Neon”. Kenny Greenburg, http://www.neonshop.com/krypton.html (17 Mar. 2002).
“Neon”. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2001, http://Encarta.msn.com (22 Mar. 2002).
“Neon”. The University of Sheffeild, http://www.webelements.com(27 Feb. 2002).
Newton, David E. (1999). Chemical Elements From Carbon to Krypton. Farmington Hills: Gale Research Co, Inc. (355-360).
Smith, B.L. and Webb, J.P. (1971). The Inert Gases: Model Systems for Science. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co, Inc.
Thomas, Nicholas C. (1992). Rare Gases. Boston: Gale Research Co, Inc. (3054-3056).
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