First of al it is an inert gas. It is odorless, colorless and does not sustain life, however, it is important for plant growth and is a key additive in fertilizers. Its uses range far beyond the gardening sphere. Nitrogen usually appears in either liquid or gas form (although it is possible to attain solid nitrogen as well). Liquid nitrogen is used as a refrigerant, which is able to rapidly freeze foods and subjects in medical research, as well as reproductive technology. For the purpose of this explanation, we will stick with nitrogen gas.
Nitrogen is widely used, mainly, due to the fact that is does not react when exposed to other gas, unlike oxygen which is very reactive. Due to its chemical composition, nitrogen atoms need more energy to be broken and react with other substances. Oxygen molecules on the other hand are easier to break apart, therefore, making the gas much more reactive. Nitrogen gas is the opposite, providing unreactive environments where needed.
The lack of reactivity of nitrogen is its biggest quality and as a result the gas is used to prevent slow and fast oxidation. The electronics industry presents a perfect example of this use, as during the production of circuit boards and other small components, slow oxidation can occur in the form of corrosion. Slow oxidation is also no stranger to the food and beverage industry, where in this case, nitrogen is used to displace or replace the air in order to better preserve the end product. Explosions and fires are a good example of fast oxidation, since they need to be fueled by oxygen. Removing the the oxygen from a vessel with the help of nitrogen, lessens the likelihood of these accidents from occurring.
If an application requires nitrogen use, there are three main ways of obtaining the gas. One is to lease an on-site nitrogen tank and have the gas delivered, the second is having nitrogen gas delivered in high pressure bottles. The final one is generating your own nitrogen
using compressed air
. Buying or leasing nitrogen can become very inconvenient, inefficient and costly, since there is a need to deal with a third party supplier. For these reasons many businesses have opted out of leasing and decided to generate their own nitrogen, with the ability to control amount, purity and pressure for a given application. Additional benefits include a stable price, no transport costs or delays, no hazards related to cryogenic storage and no waste related to boil-off losses or returning high pressure bottles that can never be fully emptied.
There are two types of nitrogen generators, membrane nitrogen generators as well as PSA (Pressure Swing Adsorption) nitrogen generators, which allow achievement for very high purities of 99.999% or 10 PPM (parts per million) and even higher. Learn more about the latter here