Oxygen accelerates chemical reactions in a variety of industries and processes. It elevates furnace temperatures in the metal and ceramics industry and accelerates biological and biochemical processes – in water treatment, for example. As a medical aid and medication, it plays an important role in medicine.
More than half – 50.5 percent to be exact – of the parts of our planet accessible to people consist of oxygen. That’s the share of this element in the atmosphere, hydrosphere (waters) and the Earth’s crust down to a depth of 16 kilometers. That means its mass alone makes oxygen the world’s most important substructure.
It only entered the Earth's atmosphere through the work of cyanobacteria. They were probably the first organisms to release molecular oxygen as a gaseous waste product of their metabolism. Before that, the atmosphere of our young planet was practically oxygen-free.
Oxygen owes its name to an error in early natural science. In the 18th century, the pioneers of chemistry thought that the colorless and odorless gas was responsible for the formation of acids. For that reason, they called it “oxygenium” (acid former), a name derived from the Greek work for acid: oxys.
In outer space, by the way, oxygen is the third most common element after hydrogen and helium – albeit with a far lower percentage by mass than on the Earth. In our solar system, it represents about 0.8 percent. In industry, oxygen’s reactive properties help manufacturers make products efficiently and cost-effectively: oxygen is involved in most industrial operations where combustion processes or chemical reactions play a role – from steelmaking to water treatment.
Extremely reactive, forms compounds with nearly all other elements, participates in most combustion and corrosion processes.
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