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What is Oxygen?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Oxygen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gaseous chemical element which appears in great abundance on Earth, trapped by the atmosphere. Many people are familiar with oxygen, because it is a vital component of the respiration process; without it, most organisms will die within minutes. A number of forms of oxygen and its compounds can be found in nature. The gas can also be isolated and sold in pure form for an assortment of uses, and was first isolated and identified in 1774.

The atomic number of oxygen is eight, and it is identified by an O symbol on the periodic table of elements. In addition to being very widely distributed on Earth, it is also the third most abundant element in the universe, and it is a key catalyst in many chemical reactions. Oxidation is one such reaction, and it occurs when it mixes with other elements and compounds. Oxygen also plays a role in combustion.

There are several ways to extract pure oxygen. Water can be ionized, forcing the oxygen and hydrogen atoms to separate. More commonly, however, samples of air are cooled into a liquid form and then slowly heated. As the air heats, elements precipitate out in a process called fractional distillation, because different gaseous elements convert to a gas form at different temperatures. Once extracted, the gas can be bottled for use.

In medicine, oxygen has a number of uses. It is sometimes offered therapeutically to patients who are having difficulty breathing. It is also used in anesthesia mixtures, ensuring that the patient gets a consistent supply of the gas while unconscious. The element also plays a role in welding and industry, being combined with substances like acetylene, for example, to make welding torches.

Although pure oxygen is used medicinally and recreationally, as it brings about a state of mild euphoria, it is potentially dangerous. In high pressure environments, toxicity from overuse can damage the lungs, often quite severely. Depending on the pressure, symptoms may emerge right away, or they may take several hours to manifest, at which point it can be too late. The gas also represents a serious combustion hazard, and some compounds such as ozone and hydrogen peroxide are extremely toxic. These compounds can damage cells and DNA if they are left unchecked. Living organisms should consume a diet high in antioxidants to help avert one form of this damage, caused by free radicals in the body.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon273268 — On Jun 05, 2012

What is oxygen used for?

By anon268647 — On May 15, 2012

Why is oxygen such a reactive element?

By anon265797 — On May 03, 2012

Why do we breathe in oxygen?

By anon241100 — On Jan 17, 2012

Oxygen is not dangerous.

By anon229958 — On Nov 16, 2011

Oxygen concentrators are quite amazing. They help so many people with respiratory problems by concentrating air with oxygen and delivering it to them. The best part of that is that now those who couldn't go out and do things because they were confined to their home are now able to get out and move around and do the things that they weren't able to do before. I love it. Technology is amazing.

By anon172405 — On May 03, 2011

how does oxygen deal with our blood?

By anon158558 — On Mar 07, 2011

how many experiments can you do with oxygen?

By anon147430 — On Jan 29, 2011

what is oxygen most commonly found in or used for?

By anon122624 — On Oct 28, 2010

Where can oxygen be found?

By anon109556 — On Sep 08, 2010

what are molecules and atoms?

By anon86505 — On May 25, 2010

why can't you see or taste oxygen?

By anon73095 — On Mar 25, 2010

why is oxygen not seen?

By anon73094 — On Mar 25, 2010

oxygen is healthful to people.

By anon69428 — On Mar 08, 2010

where do gases come from?

By anon69427 — On Mar 08, 2010

carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.

hydrogen with small amount of helium is in the sun.

the sun is a star (closest star to Earth).

By anon68956 — On Mar 05, 2010

why can oxygen not be seen?

By anon57240 — On Dec 21, 2009

what is oxygen used for?

By anon57169 — On Dec 20, 2009

what uses could oxygen have when on a different planet?

By anon49282 — On Oct 19, 2009

Is oxygen dangerous?

By anon47443 — On Oct 05, 2009

oxidation process is harmful or not?

By anon46724 — On Sep 28, 2009

Does everyone have cancer?

By anon37283 — On Jul 18, 2009

Is oxygen flammable

By anon21496 — On Nov 17, 2008

how does oxygen work?

By anon6651 — On Jan 05, 2008

what are the first most abundant elements of the universe? i'm just wondering... this site is useful thanks :)

By littlecircle — On Oct 14, 2007

What types of ions is oxygen likely to form?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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