When you think of Neon, your mind probably creates imagines of flashing, bright signs illuminating the dark, but the element itself looks quite different. As a noble gas, isolated Neon doesn’t just lack the luster it’s famous for, it doesn’t look like anything at all.
A Member of Nobility
Neon belongs to the far right column of the Periodic Table, which means it is a noble gas. These elements are inert, and therefore highly unreactive. This is because the outermost shell of a noble gas’ nucleus is filled with electrons, giving it no incentive to share with another element. For this reason, you will rarely find a noble gas in a compound.
Also a characteristic of every noble gas, Neon is colorless and odorless—a fact that may be surprising given the fact that Neon signs are so incredibly bright and flashy.
Although Neon ranks quite high on a more macro scale as it is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, it only composes about .0018% of the Earth’s atmosphere. This means that the supply of Neon on this planet is not especially plentiful.
Sir William Ramsay and Morris M. Travers discovered Neon in 1898 when they were studying liquified air. Neon isn’t the only discovery that this study yielded, as the two also discovered Krypton around the same time. Neon is still harvest primarily through distilling liquified air, just like Ramsay and Travers did when they first isolated it.
The name Neon simply comes from the Greek word for new, which is “neos.” It may seem a somewhat uncreative title, but having just discovered another element it’s likely these scientists needed a simple way to differentiate them in conversation. This element occurs when the internal pressure of large mass stars is so great that it fuses carbon atoms into neon atoms.
Some scientists are vying for Neon to become classified as the lightest of noble gases rather than helium.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Neon (and all noble gases for that matter) is that it does not react with any other element. That’s right—no materials are formed out of Neon compounds, but the element still has a number of different applications.
Lighting Up The World
Though it is colorless on its own, Neon conducts electricity, and lights up when it is subjected to a charge. That’s how the well-known Neon signs are formed—they utilize a vacuum discharge tube; when the Neon feels the charge, it glows a reddish-orange color.
However you’ve probably seen plenty of Neon signs in colors other than this one. That’s because other gases can be added into the tube to create different colors. The other noble gases are a popular choice as they are also safe due to being unreactive and they create a variety of colors; xenon may look purple, while argon is blue.
Neon’s gaseous form isn’t the only useful one, though. Liquid Neon can be used as a cryogenic refrigerant to supercool items, but like liquid nitrogen might be, but it has 40 times the refrigerating abilities of liquid helium. Although the gas is considered non-toxic, it still shouldn’t be ingested as it is considered a simple asphyxiant that can cause dizziness, nausea, impaired judgement, or loss of consciousness.
Living up to its classification, Neon truly behaves nobly in that it doesn’t get into any scrapes with other elements. However, this singular attitude doesn’t keep Neon from being a highly useful element.