How We Use Oxygen
Oxygen has so many commercial, industrial, and other uses that it consistently ranks among the top five chemicals in volume of production in the United States. In 1988, for example, 37 billion lb (16.8 billion kg) of the element were manufactured in the United States.
The uses to which oxygen is put can be classified into four major categories: metallurgy, rocketry, chemical synthesis, and medicine. In the processing of iron ore in a blast furnace, for example, oxygen is used to convert coke (carbon) to carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide, in turn, reduces iron oxides to pure iron metal. Oxygen is then used in a second step of iron processing in the Bessemer converter, open hearth, or basic oxygen process method of converting pig iron to steel. In this step, the oxygen is used to react with the excess carbon, silicon, and metals remaining in the pig iron that must be removed in order to produce steel.
Another metallurgical application of oxygen is in torches used for welding and cutting. The two most common torches make use of the reaction between oxygen and hydrogen (the oxyhydrogen torch) or between oxygen and acetylene (the oxyacetylene torch). Both kinds of torches produce temperatures in the range of 5,432°F (3,000°C) or more and can, therefore, be used to cut through or weld the great majority of metallic materials.
Oxygen, in the form of LOX, is widely used as the oxidizing agent in many kinds of rockets and missiles. As an example, the huge external fuel tank required to lift the space shuttle into space holds 145,000 gal (550,000 l) of liquid oxygen and 390,000 gal (1,500,000 l) hydrogen. When these two elements react in the shuttle's main engines, they provide a maximum thrust of 512,000 lb (232,000 kg).
The chemical industry uses vast amounts of oxygen every year in a variety of chemical synthesis reactions. One of the most important of these is the cracking of hydrocarbons by oxygen. Under most circumstances, heating a hydrocarbon with oxygen results in combustion, with carbon dioxide and water as the main products. However, if the rate at which oxygen is fed into a hydrocarbon mixture is carefully controlled, the hydrocarbon is "cracked," or broken apart to produce other products, such as acetylene, ethylene, and propylene.
Various types of synthetic fuels can also be manufactured with oxygen as one of the main reactants. Producer gas, as an example, is manufactured by passing oxygen at a controlled rate through a bed of hot coal or coke. The majority of carbon dioxide produced in this reaction is reduced to carbon monoxide so that the final product (the producer gas) consists primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
Perhaps the best known medical application of oxygen is in oxygen therapy, where patients who are having trouble breathing are given doses of pure or nearly pure oxygen. Some common instances in which oxygen therapy is used include surgical procedures, following heart attacks, and during infectious diseases. In each case, providing a person with pure oxygen reduces the stress on his or her heart and lungs and speeds the rate of recovery.
Pure oxygen or air enriched with oxygen may also be provided in environments where breathing may be difficult. Aircraft that fly at high altitudes, of course, are always provided with supplies of oxygen in case of any problems with the ship's normal air supply. Deep-sea divers also carry with them or have pumped to them supplies of air that are enriched with oxygen.
Some water purification and sewage treatment plants use oxygen. The gas is pumped through water to increase the rate at which naturally occurring bacteria break down organic waste materials. A similar process has been found to reduce the rate at which eutrophication takes place in lakes and ponds and, in some cases, to actually reverse that process.
Finally, oxygen is essential to all animal life on Earth. A person can survive a few days or weeks without food or water, but no more than a few minutes without oxygen. In the absence of oxygen, energy-generating chemical reactions taking place within cells would come to an end, and a person would die.