Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it's these O2 molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it's toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun's radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet.
Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth. How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?
Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They're so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party?
We've come a long way from the days when alchemists thought the air was a single element, as we unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.
© The Royal Institution / Windfall Films
Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide. Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but is a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.
Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it. But why is water so special? And can we tap into the energy released when a lit splint is added to a mix of hydrogen and water, to create an environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?
We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.