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Xenon is needed for manufacturing processes in the electronics industry and as a propellant for ion thrusters. The noble gas also serves as an inhalation anesthetic.
Noble gases are rare, and that’s especially true of xenon. In fact, it is the rarest stable element on Earth.
In 1895, William Ramsey first isolated helium and recognized that according to the laws of the chemical periodical system, other noble gases also must exist. He did not find xenon, however, until he examined the newly discovered krypton more closely together with Morris William Travers. Through fractionated distillation, they were able to isolate another gas there. Because the discovery had “defied” them so to speak, the two researchers named the substance after the ancient Greek word for foreign or strange: xenos.
Today xenon is extracted from the air in air separation units. Due to the low concentration of xenon in the atmosphere, that process is profitable only in large plants. A special air separation unit that produces 24,000 kilograms of oxygen per hour, for example, would theoretically produce just one kilogram of xenon per day. Today xenon is extracted from liquid oxygen in the air separation process. In an elaborate process in a special air separation unit, it takes 24,000 kilograms of the liquid oxygen to recover about 9.4 kilograms of xenon per day.
The noble gas krypton is very difficult to extract from air. Correspondingly expensive, it is primarily used today as a filling gas in double glazed windows, where it provides significantly better insulation than the less expensive argon. Krypton is also used as a filling gas in Geiger counters for measuring radioactive radiation. Other applications take the form of krypton mixtures used in special lasers for performing eye surgery or manufacturing intricate semiconductor components.
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