Liquid nitrogen explained

Liquid nitrogen is nitrogen in a liquid state at an extremely low temperature. It is produced industrially by fractional distillation of liquid air. Liquid nitrogen is a colourless clear liquid with density of 0.807 g/mL at its boiling point and a dielectric constant of 1.4.[1] Liquid nitrogen is often referred to by the abbreviation, LN2 or "LIN" or "LN" and has the UN number 1977.

At atmospheric pressure, liquid nitrogen boils at -1960NaN0 and is a cryogenic fluid which can cause rapid freezing on contact with living tissue, which may lead to frostbite. When appropriately insulated from ambient heat, liquid nitrogen can be stored and transported, for example in vacuum flasks. Here, the very low temperature is held constant at 77 K by slow boiling of the liquid, resulting in the evolution of nitrogen gas. Depending on the size and design, the holding time of vacuum flasks ranges from a few hours to a few weeks.

Liquid nitrogen can easily be converted to the solid by placing it in a vacuum chamber pumped by a rotary vacuum pump.[2] Liquid nitrogen freezes at 63K. Despite its reputation, liquid nitrogen's efficiency as a coolant is limited by the fact that it boils immediately on contact with a warmer object, enveloping the object in insulating nitrogen gas. This effect, known as the Leidenfrost effect, applies to any liquid in contact with an object significantly hotter than its boiling point. More rapid cooling may be obtained by plunging an object into a slush of liquid and solid nitrogen than into liquid nitrogen alone.

Nitrogen was first liquefied at the Jagiellonian University on 15 April 1883 by Polish physicists, Zygmunt Wróblewski and Karol Olszewski.[3]


Liquid nitrogen is a compact and readily transported source of nitrogen gas without pressurization. Further, its ability to maintain temperatures far below the freezing point of water makes it extremely useful in a wide range of applications, primarily as an open-cycle refrigerant, including:


Since the liquid to gas expansion ratio of nitrogen is 1:694 at 20C, a tremendous amount of force can be generated if liquid nitrogen is rapidly vaporized. In an incident in 2006 at Texas A&M University, the pressure-relief devices of a tank of liquid nitrogen were malfunctioning and later sealed. As a result of the subsequent pressure buildup, the tank failed catastrophically and exploded. The force of the explosion was sufficient to propel the tank through the ceiling immediately above it.[6]

Because of its extremely low temperature, careless handling of liquid nitrogen may result in cold burns.

As liquid nitrogen evaporates it will reduce the oxygen concentration in the air and might act as an asphyxiant, especially in confined spaces. Nitrogen is odorless, colorless and tasteless, and may produce asphyxia without any sensation or prior warning.[7] A laboratory assistant died in Scotland in 1999, apparently from asphyxiation caused by liquid nitrogen spilled in a basement storage room.[8]

Oxygen sensors are sometimes used as a safety precaution when working with liquid nitrogen to alert workers of gas spills into a confined space.

Vessels containing liquid nitrogen can condense oxygen from air. The liquid in such a vessel becomes increasingly enriched in oxygen (boiling point 90K) as the nitrogen evaporates, and can cause violent oxidation of organic material.


See Air separation.

See also

Notes and References

  1. Web site: Dielectric Constants.
  2. Umrath, W.. 1974. Cooling bath for rapid freezing in electron microscopy. Journal of Microscopy. 101. 103–105. 10.1111/j.1365-2818.1974.tb03871.x.
  3. Book: A Short History of the Progress of Scientific Chemistry in Our Own Times. 249. William Augustus Tilden. BiblioBazaar, LLC. 2009. 1-103-35842-1.
  4. Book: Wainner, Scott. The Book of Overclocking: Tweak Your PC to Unleash Its Power. Robert Richmond. 44. 1-886411-76-X. No Starch Press. 2003.
  5. Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream Recipe
  6. Web site: Investigative Report on Chemistry 301A Cylinder Explosion. Brent S. Mattox. Texas A&M University. reprint.
  7. British Compressed Gases Association (2000) BCGA Code of Practice CP30. The Safe Use of Liquid nitrogen Dewars up to 50 litres. ISSN 0260-4809.
  8. Inquiry after man dies in chemical leak