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Definition: oxygen from Dictionary of Energy

Chemistry. a gaseous element having the symbol O, the atomic number 8, an atomic weight of 15.9994, a melting point of -218.4°C, and a boiling point of -182.962°C; a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that is the most abundant element on earth, about 20% by volume of the atmosphere at sea level, about 50% of the material of the earth’s surface, and about 90% of water. Oxygen readily forms compounds with nearly all other elements except inert gases, and it is used for many industrial purposes. See also free oxygen.

Summary Article: oxygen from The Columbia Encyclopedia

gaseous chemical element; symbol O; at. no. 8; interval in which at. wt. ranges 15.99903–15.99977; m.p. -218.4 degrees Celsius; b.p. -182.962 degrees Celsius; density 1.429 grams per liter at STP; valence -2. The existence and properties of oxygen had been noted by many scientists before the announcement of its isolation by Priestley in 1774. Scheele had also succeeded in preparing oxygen from a number of substances, but publication of his findings was delayed until after that of Priestley's. As a result, Priestley and Scheele are credited with the discovery of the element independently. The fact that the gas is a component of the atmosphere was finally and definitely established by Lavoisier a few years later. In 1929, W. F. Giaque and H. L. Johnston announced the discovery of two isotopes of oxygen, of mass numbers 17 and 18.

Properties and Compounds

Oxygen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas; it is the first member of Group 16 of the periodic table. It is denser than air and only slightly soluble in water. A poor conductor of heat and electricity, oxygen supports combustion but does not burn. Normal atmospheric oxygen is a diatomic gas (O2) with molecular weight 31.9988. Ozone is a highly reactive triatomic (O3) allotrope of oxygen (see allotropy). When cooled below its boiling point oxygen becomes a pale blue liquid; when cooled still further the liquid solidifies, retaining its color. Oxygen is paramagnetic in its solid, liquid, and gaseous forms. Although eight isotopes of oxygen are known, atmospheric oxygen is a mixture of the three isotopes with mass numbers 16, 17, and 18.

Oxygen is extremely active chemically, forming compounds with almost all of the elements except the inert gases. Oxygen unites directly with a number of other elements to form oxides. It is a constituent of many acids and of hydroxides, carbohydrates, proteins, fats and oils, alcohols, cellulose, and numerous other compounds such as the carbonates, chlorates, nitrates and nitrites, phosphates and phosphites, and sulphates and sulphites.

The common reaction in which it unites with another substance is called oxidation (see oxidation and reduction). The burning of substances in air is rapid oxidation or combustion. The respiration of animals and plants is a form of oxidation essential to the liberation of the energy stored in such food materials as carbohydrates and fats. The rusting of iron and the corrosion of many metals results from the action of the oxygen in the air.

Natural Occurrence and Preparation

Oxygen is the most abundant element on earth, constituting about half of the total material of its surface. Most of this oxygen is combined in the form of silicates, oxides and water. It makes up about 90% of water, two thirds of the human body and one fifth by volume of air. It is found in the sun, and has a role in the stellar carbon cycle (see nucleosynthesis). Oxygen is prepared for commercial use by the liquefaction and fractional distillation of air and more expensively by the electrolysis of water; it is stored and transported under high pressure in steel cylinders. It can also be obtained by heating certain of its compounds, such as barium peroxide, potassium chlorate, and the red oxide of mercury.


Oxygen is of great importance in the chemical and the iron and steel industries. Its major use is in steel production, for example in the Bessemer process. The oxyacetylene torch is another important industrial application. Oxygen is utilized in medicine in the treatment of respiratory diseases and is mixed with other gases for respiration in submarines, high-flying aircraft, and spacecraft. Liquid oxygen is used as an oxidizer in the fuel systems of large rockets.

Oxygen was formerly the official standard for the atomic weights of elements. The chemists used natural oxygen, a mixture of three isotopes, to which the value of 16 was assigned while the physicists assigned the value of 16 specifically to the oxygen isotope 16. In 1961 carbon-12 replaced oxygen as the standard.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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