The 14th International Conference on
Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences
The noble gases (historically also the inert gases; sometimes referred to as aerogens) make up a group of chemical elements with similar properties; under standard conditions, they are all odorless, colorless, monatomic gases with very low chemical reactivity. The six noble gases that occur naturally are helium (He), neon (Ne), argon (Ar), krypton (Kr), xenon (Xe), and the radioactive radon (Rn). Oganesson (Og) is variously predicted to be a noble gas as well or to break the trend due to relativistic effects; its chemistry has not yet been investigated.
Neon, argon, krypton, and xenon are obtained from air in an air separation unit using the methods of liquefaction of gases and fractional distillation. Helium is sourced from natural gas fields that have high concentrations of helium in the natural gas, using cryogenic gas separation techniques, and radon is usually isolated from the radioactive decay of dissolved radium, thorium, or uranium compounds. Noble gases have several important applications in industries such as lighting, welding, and space exploration. A helium-oxygen breathing gas is often used by deep-sea divers at depths of seawater over 55 m (180 ft). After the risks caused by the flammability of hydrogen became apparent, it was replaced with helium in blimps and balloons.
The discovery of the noble gases aided in the development of a general understanding of atomic structure. In 1895, French chemist Henri Moissan attempted to form a reaction between fluorine, the most electronegative element, and argon, one of the noble gases, but failed. Scientists were unable to prepare compounds of argon until the end of the 20th century, but these attempts helped to develop new theories of atomic structure. Learning from these experiments, Danish physicist Niels Bohr proposed in 1913 that the electrons in atoms are arranged in shells surrounding the nucleus, and that for all noble gases except helium the outermost shell always contains eight electrons. In 1916, Gilbert N. Lewis formulated the octet rule, which concluded an octet of electrons in the outer shell was the most stable arrangement for any atom; this arrangement caused them to be unreactive with other elements since they did not require any more electrons to complete their outer shell.
The macroscopic physical properties of the noble gases are dominated by the weak van der Waals forces between the atoms. The attractive force increases with the size of the atom as a result of the increase in polarizability and the decrease in ionization potential. This results in systematic group trends: as one goes down group 18, the atomic radius, and with it the interatomic forces, increases, resulting in an increasing melting point, boiling point, enthalpy of vaporization, and solubility. The increase in density is due to the increase in atomic mass.
The noble gases are colorless, odorless, tasteless, and nonflammable under standard conditions. They were once labeled group 0 in the periodic table because it was believed they had a valence of zero, meaning their atoms cannot combine with those of other elements to form compounds. However, it was later discovered some do indeed form compounds, causing this label to fall into disuse.
The noble gases have full valence electron shells. Valence electrons are the outermost electrons of an atom and are normally the only electrons that participate in chemical bonding. Atoms with full valence electron shells are extremely stable and therefore do not tend to form chemical bonds and have little tendency to gain or lose electrons. However, heavier noble gases such as radon are held less firmly together by electromagnetic force than lighter noble gases such as helium, making it easier to remove outer electrons from heavy noble gases.
In theory, radon is more reactive than xenon, and therefore should form chemical bonds more easily than xenon does. However, due to the high radioactivity and short half-life of radon isotopes, only a few fluorides and oxides of radon have been formed in practice.
In addition to the compounds where a noble gas atom is involved in a covalent bond, noble gases also form non-covalent compounds. The clathrates, first described in 1949, consist of a noble gas atom trapped within cavities of crystal lattices of certain organic and inorganic substances. The essential condition for their formation is that the guest (noble gas) atoms must be of appropriate size to fit in the cavities of the host crystal lattice. For instance, argon, krypton, and xenon form clathrates with hydroquinone, but helium and neon do not because they are too small or insufficiently polarizable to be retained. Neon, argon, krypton, and xenon also form clathrate hydrates, where the noble gas is trapped in ice.
Helium is used as a component of breathing gases to replace nitrogen, due its low solubility in fluids, especially in lipids. Gases are absorbed by the blood and body tissues when under pressure like in scuba diving, which causes an anesthetic effect known as nitrogen narcosis. Due to its reduced solubility, little helium is taken into cell membranes, and when helium is used to replace part of the breathing mixtures, such as in trimix or heliox, a decrease in the narcotic effect of the gas at depth is obtained. Helium's reduced solubility offers further advantages for the condition known as decompression sickness, or the bends. The reduced amount of dissolved gas in the body means that fewer gas bubbles form during the decrease in pressure of the ascent. Another noble gas, argon, is considered the best option for use as a drysuit inflation gas for scuba diving. Helium is also used as filling gas in nuclear fuel rods for nuclear reactors.
In many applications, the noble gases are used to provide an inert atmosphere. Argon is used in the synthesis of air-sensitive compounds that are sensitive to nitrogen. Solid argon is also used for the study of very unstable compounds, such as reactive intermediates, by trapping them in an inert matrix at very low temperatures. Helium is used as the carrier medium in gas chromatography, as a filler gas for thermometers, and in devices for measuring radiation, such as the Geiger counter and the bubble chamber. Helium and argon are both commonly used to shield welding arcs and the surrounding base metal from the atmosphere during welding and cutting, as well as in other metallurgical processes and in the production of silicon for the semiconductor industry.
Some noble gases have direct application in medicine. Helium is sometimes used to improve the ease of breathing of asthma sufferers. Xenon is used as an anesthetic because of its high solubility in lipids, which makes it more potent than the usual nitrous oxide, and because it is readily eliminated from the body, resulting in faster recovery. Xenon finds application in medical imaging of the lungs through hyperpolarized MRI. Radon, which is highly radioactive and is only available in minute amounts, is used in radiotherapy.