Nitrous Oxide: Chemical | Organic composition
Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:07 pm
The chemical symbol for nitrous oxide is N20 (shorthand for two atoms of nitrogen joined with one atom of oxygen). The gas itself is clear and colorless, with a slightly sweet odor and taste.
Nitrous oxide is synthesized, or produced, by heating ammonium nitrate (NH4N03) and then condensing out the water and filtering impurities. The gas is then compressed and turned into liquid for storage in tanks, cylinders, or cartridges.
Commercial grade nitrous oxide — such as that used in food and beverage dispensing, fuel injection, and chemical and semiconductor manufacturing — may contain a number of impurities, including the toxic chemicals sulphuric acid, ammonia, and nitric oxide.
Nitrous oxide should not be confused with nitric oxide, or NO, another gas that dilates the blood vessels (but is an air pollutant).
Depending on its intended use, nitrous oxide may be purchased in varying “grades,” or degrees of purity. Medical grade nitrous oxide is a prescription drug sold as a compressed liquid in cylinder tanks. Its buyer requires appropriate credentials to obtain it (which are governed by state law). Nitrous oxide used for other legitimate applications, such as manufacturing and auto racing, is often sold in a “denatured” form. Denatured nitrous contains chemicals that render it unfit for human consumption.
N20 is used as an aerosol propellant in cans of whipped cream and some other food and beverage products. These products are also a source of N20 for some nitrous abusers.
A food-grade version of the gas is also sold in small metal cartridges as a propellant for whipped cream cans and dispensers (hence the name slang name “whippets”). These small, bullet-shaped charging cartridges are legal. Because of their accessibility, portability, and low-cost, whippets are the most common means of taking the drug among nitrous oxide abusers.
Sometimes, masks or plastic bags are filled with laughing gas and then placed over the mouth and/or head. This practice carries a particularly high risk for serious injury and possible death, because the user can lose consciousness and suffocate on the mask or bag. Suffocation can also occur when nitrous oxide is consumed in large quantities in a poorly ventilated space, such as a car or closet, or when the user doesn’t breathe in a sufficient amount of oxygen during prolonged use.
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