Laughing Matter

Nitrous Oxide (N2O, aka laughing gas) is a really interesting chemical with many applications, but it also has powerfully negative environmental effects (last section of this post). It’s popularity started back in the late 18th century when folks would actually host laughing gas parties!

Laughing Gas Party

Nitrous oxide is used as a food additive to propel whipped cream and cooking oil, as well as to fill food packages, like chips because it prevents the growth of bacteria. It is used recreationally today because of its euphoric and hallucinogenic effects, although it is illegal in most places to sell it as a recreational drug. For example, a number of stores in LA were recently caught by local authorities. Whipped cream cans are another source of recreational nitrous oxide, aka whippets.  It’s important to note that nitrous oxide is not dangerous in small doses. However, users must be cautious because inhaling straight nitrous oxide is risky since there is no oxygen present.


N2O administeredMany of us may have first experienced laughing gas during a dental procedure that required a mild anaesthetic. Nitrous oxide may also be used along with stronger anaesthetics during surgical procedures. I have a vivid memory from when I was eleven, and I was falling asleep prior to surgery. I remember I started laughing hysterically, but I was also asking myself, “Why am I laughing? This isn’t funny!”


Medicinal nitrous oxide is not limited to anaesthetics. It’s also an pain reliever, and it may possibly relieve anxiety! Interestingly, how nitrous oxide works as an anaesthetic is unknown.



N2O kitAuto racing fans should be familiar with nitrous oxide as a power booster (aka “nitrous”). How it works is quite simple and effective. At high temperatures (like that of a car engine) nitrous oxide separates into nitrogen and oxygen. This allows a greater saturation of oxygen, which means that when the oxygen burns fuel it produces more products (carbon dioxide and water). These products drive the engine by exerting pressure on pistons. In summary, a greater oxygen saturation means a greater amount of carbon dioxide and water, which exerts a greater pressure on the pistons that power the engine. For more info. check out Wikipedia and How Stuff Works.


Nitrous oxide has many popular applications, but what you may not know is that it is now a more important source of ozone depletion and is also an important greenhouse gas (traps heat in our atmosphere, i.e. contributes to global warming). You know how we’re always making a big deal about carbon dioxide and methane? Well, nitrous oxide can trap heat in our atmosphere 300, THREE HUNDRED (suddenly I am picturing battle crazed Greeks…), times more than carbon dioxide, and about 15 times more than methane! The primary source of nitrous oxide is from the livestock industry- especially poop and fertilizers! Doesn’t that make a pretty picture (note sarcasm)! You can read more about this and other environmental issues caused by the livestock industry here.

sources pie chart

Sources of nitrous oxide via human activity






Car with Nitrous Oxide Tanks is from Photobucket

Nitrous oxide administered to patient is from

Pie Chart of nitrous oxide sources: Smithson et al, 2008, Fundamentals of the Physical Environment, Routledge. and can be found at

Whippets is via Wikimedia Commons

Production of nitrous oxide via Wikimedia Commons

Laughin Gas Party via Wikimedia Commons

Nitrous oxide car kit from


1 Comment

  1. Chris says:

    So what’s the main synthetic route for the industrial production of N2O? Would it be possible or feasible to ‘harvest’ it from the byproducts of other ‘natural’ synthetic routes?
    How much is produced annually for commercial purposes, and how much is generated as byproducts?

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