Uses of Oxygen in the Body, Medicine and Everyday Life

Oxygen is the vital gases responsible for life on earth. It generates energy and supports the life of all the living organisms. Further, due to its high electronegative property, it also reacts with many organic and inorganic substances. Hence, there are many wide uses of oxygen.

10 Important uses include

  1. Energy generation in the body.
  2. Health care
  3. Poison management.
  4. Gas Welding
  5. Combustion of fuels in automobiles.
  6. In sterilization.
  7. For sanitation.
  8. Chemical Analysis (quality control)
  9. Involved in chemical reactions.
  10. Provides food

For Energy supply

This is an important use of oxygen in the body. We all live because our body cells derive energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Oxygen from the air we breathe is carried by the hemoglobin in blood from the lungs. It is distributed to all the cells and tissues of the body.

There, the oxygen is taken up by the mitochondria present in the cells. Then, it is used to break down the glucose molecule and produce energy ATP. The reaction is shown in the picture below.

Uses of oxygen to generate energy in body

The waste products from this reaction include water and carbon dioxide. Hence, it is a life-generating gas and therefore carried into space and also during deep-sea diving.

Animals living in water also take up oxygen with the help of gills. Hence, the air-water combination is critical even in aquariums as the fishes need to take oxygen.

Even, the plants also take up oxygen for the production of the required energy. However, they also produce oxygen by photosynthesis.

In health care

When there is a respiratory insufficiency, oxygen therapy is essential.

This occurs in the case of diseases like COPD, pneumonia, heart failure, etc. Due to less breathing, there is a strain on the heart to manage oxygen demand through blood circulation. This leads to heart problems and even death. When oxygen therapy is given, the amount of oxygen given is higher than the normal air levels. So, it reaches the body even if the lungs malfunction.

patient in hospital with respiratory support

Even in the case of poisoning, when the respiratory center is compromised, oxygen therapy may be given to stabilize the patient. Thus medical oxygen is an essential aid in critical conditions to save lives and buy time for further procedures.

In Poison management

In the case of poisoning by cyanide and carbon monoxide, oxygen can help save a life. In the case of cyanide poison, it helps buy time to detoxify the cyanide from the human body. Cyanide binds to mitochondrial complexes and arrests energy generation leading to immediate death. Oxygen, when given in high doses, can compete and minimize this cyanide induced arrest of mitochondria energy generation. Thus it can save lives and pave way for further detoxification of cyanide by the use of sodium thiosulfate.

Similarly, when there is carbon monoxide poising, patients are subjected to hyperbaric oxygen therapy which replaces CO present in the blood and tissues fast.

In Gas welding

Oxygen is used in gas welding instead of regular air. The use of oxygen is said to increase the flame temperature at thereby help in localized melting of metal at the point of exposure.

oxygen is used for flame production in gas welding

For example, compare the heat energy when fuel propane is burnt with air and oxygen in the table below.

Fuel Ignition gas Heat generated
Propane Air 1,980 °C
Propane Oxygen 2,253 °C

So, when welding fuel is burnt by the oxygen it generates higher energy. High temperature leads to a better melting of metals. This results in efficient welding.

For the combustion of fuels in automobiles

We all have studied the requirement of air or oxygen to support fire. Similarly, oxygen is necessary to burn the fuels in automobiles.

Most automobiles we see in daily life run on petroleum products. The petrol is needed to generate mechanical energy inside the closed combustion engines.

combustion engine of automobile showing fuel ignition with mixture of air (oxygen)

As seen in the above picture, oxygen reacts with fuel and burns to generate heat energy. This heat energy converts to mechanical energy as it pushes the pistons in the cylinder. Thus, oxygen is required to run the automobiles. Without oxygen, it would be difficult to burn fuels. So there are separate air filters in your bike or car which take air into the combustion chamber for the burning of fuel.

For sterilization

Oxygen being an electronegative element is a strong sterilizing agent. It can destroy microbes in a given environment be it water or land. It is used in the form of hydrogen peroxide H2O2 as a disinfectant to kill microbes on surgical equipment.

Also, there is a method called oxygen plasma treatment whereby an oxygen molecule is broken down to release a single oxygen atom or its ions which are deadly toxic. They are used for sterilization of substances at room temperatures.

For sanitation

Oxygen is also used for the decay of waste and sanitation of our environment. The sanitation is measured in terms of BOD and COD. BOD means biological oxygen demand and COD means chemical oxygen demand.  When we take them in detail, BOD is the amount of dissolved oxygen required by bacteria or other microbes to destroy the waste.

decomposition of organic matter requires oxygen

Sometimes this oxygen consumption can be severe leading to oxygen depletion and the death of aquatic animals.

COD means the amount of chemical needed to destroy a certain amount of waste. In both, the processes of oxygen are involved in destroying the waste. Read more details on biological oxygen demand.

Even we can notice metals like iron destroyed by oxidation when exposed to air for a long time. This is called rust, but actually, it is the oxidation of the metal due to oxygen in the air. Hence oxygen is a potent agent that can destroy substances. Though in our terms this destruction by rust formation is disadvantageous, it is the law of nature to derange substances. So oxygen supports this natural law by destroying them.

For analysis of substances

Sample analysis is a key aspect of quality control in the industry. It is also used in research. Of the available analytical methods in chemistry, flame photometry and atomic absorption spectrometry using a flame to determine the elements in the sample. For this oxygen is needed to generate a flame of high temperature so as to convert excite electrons in the atoms. So, oxygen is used as one of the combinations of gases in the above methods of analysis.

For chemical reactions

Oxygen is a part of many chemical reactions. An essential chemical reaction is an oxidation-reduction reaction. This reaction is one where there is an addition or removal of oxygen. The addition is termed as oxidation while removal of oxygen is termed as reduction. Besides oxygen, hydrogen and electrons are also involved in the process. These chemical reactions are used for synthesis, analysis, titration and also for degradation purposes.

For food formation

From the above picture, we can notice that oxygen is used in the reversible reaction. Wherein, in the right-hand side, it is made due to the formation of food. While in the left-hand side it is way used up to generate energy by respiration. This process of oxygen release happens in plants. They are autotrophs and make up their own food with the use of sunlight and carbon dioxide. The plants release oxygen into the air due to photosynthesis.

oxygen is formed in the process of photosynthesis

This oxygen release is formed due to a combination of carbon dioxide and water molecules. Here oxygen element plays a key role in the formation of carbohydrate in the presence of sunlight due to its high electro-negative property. If not for an oxygen element, no other elements can replace its role.

Thus oxygen is not only used as a breathing gas but also as an important chemical tool.

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