What Is The Air We Breathe Made Up Of
We breathe air every day. It’s what gives us life and sustains our lives on this planet. But how do we know that it contains certain ingredients? What makes these components essential to humans’ survival? And why aren’t plants able to survive without them? In short, what are the things that make up the air we breathe? If you’re like me, you probably thought that all the molecules floating around inside your lungs were just there for decoration. Well, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The air we breathe is actually a combination of many different gases. It’s called “aerosol,” which means “air particles.” Aerosols come in two types — gaseous or liquid — and they have different functions in everyday life. Gases like nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are necessary for human life because they contain important nutrients. They provide us with energy while allowing our bodies to absorb food, water and minerals. While they serve an essential function, though, some gasses are harmful if inhaled over long periods. For example, chlorine gas can cause death by asphyxiation. Other compounds, like sulfur dioxide, can lead to respiratory problems.
On the other hand, liquids like water vapor and alcohols don’t contribute anything useful to our daily existence. Instead, they evaporate quickly into the atmosphere and help keep clouds in place. Another type of aerosol is known as particulate matter. Particulates are microscopic solid fragments that float around in the air. These tiny bits of material can irritate our lungs when we breathe them in and may even cause cancer. Pollen grains, dust mites, mold spores and microbes are just a few examples of common airborne particulates.
Aerosols get their power from kinetic energy, which is basically the energy needed to move something. When these particles collide with another object, they slow down and eventually stop moving altogether. As a result, they end up settling onto surfaces. Once settled, however, aerosols can return to the atmosphere through evaporation, condensation, chemical reactions or physical processes.
So now you understand the basics behind the makeup of air, but what about the stuff that fills the sky above us? You might think that meteors would count as part of the makeup of air, since they fall from the sky and crash on Earth. However, meteors consist mostly of ice, so they melt almost immediately after entering our atmosphere. Still, scientists say that they could add a little bit of moisture to the mix, depending on where they land. So far, no meteorite has been found to contain any significant amount of aluminum, silicon, iron or magnesium. Iron can be toxic if ingested, but most sources agree that its presence in meteoric iron isn’t enough to pose any threat to humans.
Now that you’ve learned more about the composition of the air we breathe, let’s take a look at how plants grow without access to it.
Plants Need Carbon Dioxide, Water Vapor and Sunlight to Grow
If you took a trip back to the time before the Industrial Revolution, you’d see that plants depended entirely on sunlight, rainwater and carbon dioxide to live. No one knew about oxygen back then; in fact, people believed it was bad luck to have it near them. A plant’s roots drew in water and carbon dioxide from the ground and leaves absorbed sunlight. This process gave off sugar, which provided fuel for the plant’s growth. Plants didn’t need much else in order to thrive.
However, today’s plants depend on a lot more than sunlight, rainwater and carbon dioxide. Their nutritional needs include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc and vitamins B1, B2, C and E. Some plants also require boron, copper, manganese, sodium and others. Without sufficient quantities of each nutrient, the plant will die.
As a result, farmers use fertilizers to increase the yield of crops. Fertilizer chemicals supply plants with the nutrients they need to flourish. One popular fertilizer is ammonium nitrate, which breaks down into ammonia (NH4) and nitric acid (HNO3). Ammonia provides a source of nitrogen for plants, while HNO3 supplies them with phosphorous, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Potassium helps plants maintain healthy cell walls, while calcium and magnesium play vital roles in photosynthesis. Phosphorous aids in producing chlorophyll, which allows plants to absorb sunlight. Zinc serves as an antioxidant, protecting cells against damage caused by free radicals.
And speaking of free radicals, we mentioned earlier that they can harm living tissue. Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd number of electrons. Normally, during normal cellular respiration, electrons flow freely between molecules, keeping the atom stable. But sometimes, free radicals can steal an electron away from a molecule, leaving it unstable. A free radical will continue stealing electrons until it ends up destroying the target molecule completely. This leads to chain reactions called oxidation, which break down cells.
Free radicals also react with other free radicals, causing chain reactions called peroxidation. Peroxidation destroys lipids, proteins and nucleic acids. Damaged DNA molecules cannot replicate themselves correctly, so they accumulate in cells and interfere with other important biological processes. Oxidized fats are especially dangerous because they’re harder for our digestive system to break down. As a result, they clog arteries and form plaque deposits that narrow blood vessels.
In summary, plants and animals both need specific substances to survive. Certain combinations of elements can kill organisms, while others can sustain them. Now that you understand how air works, you should learn everything you can about the air you breathe every day. After all, it surrounds us and keeps us alive!
The average adult breathes 20 liters of air every minute. That’s about 800 gallons or 1 million pounds of air each year!
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