What are the uses of nitrous oxide

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Nitrous oxide does not sound like something which should be used in conjunction with food. Nevertheless, one of its primary uses is for food packaging.

But its rather daunting scientific name is a little misleading as far as this concerned. It is, actually, a non-toxic, rather unreactive, flavourless, gas which does not contaminate foodstuffs. It can be applied under pressure, and therefore act as a ‘propellant’ (i.e., have an aerosol-like effect), and it also prohibits the growth of bacteria. All round then, it is really quite an effective  gas to use in food packaging.

It does have a large number of other applications though. Medically,  it is known as ‘gas and air’, it is the sedative/pain-killing gas used in most ‘birthing suites’, also for minor surgery, and dentistry.

For many years, in the latter connection, it was known as ‘laughing gas’ because it induces in the patient  feelings of euphoria and bonhomie.

Many people though, will associate the gas with something quite different,  in films such as ‘Fast and Furious’ the super-charged high speed vehicles so beloved of the protagonists, use large quantities of nitrous oxide as a fuel additive.

Also, the little bottles of the gas which are used for whipped cream dispensers  ETC, are not in fact made solely for this purpose, they are used also to supply a valuable pressurised fuel additive to model rocket engines, making them many times more powerful than they would otherwise be.

Which seems to bring us back where we came in, using rocket fuel additive, in order to store food, just does not seem very wise. But it should be realised that the gas is used as a fuel additive, NOT as a fuel. The nitrous oxide supplies oxygen, that gas we  all need to live, in a very concentrated form, so allowing the high octane fuel used in the cars and other devices, to burn very much faster, than they would in normal air.

Given this, it is perhaps ironic that one of the reasons that nitrous-oxide is used for food packaging, is that the oxygen within it is entirely unavailable at normal temperatures and pressures, and thus it prevents oxidation (‘spoiling’) of food, and inhibits the growth of organisms such as bacteria.