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Nitrate vs. Nitrogen — What's the Difference?

By Maham Liaqat & Fiza Rafique — Updated on March 19, 2024
Nitrate is a compound containing nitrogen in a specific oxidation state, while nitrogen is a chemical element essential for life.
Nitrate vs. Nitrogen — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Nitrate and Nitrogen


Key Differences

Nitrate is a polyatomic ion with the chemical formula NO3-, known for its role in plant nutrition and ecosystem nitrogen cycling, whereas nitrogen is a diatomic gas (N2) making up about 78% of the Earth's atmosphere, essential for creating the building blocks of life, including proteins and nucleic acids.
Nitrates are often used in fertilizers to supply plants with essential nitrogen; however, excessive nitrate in water can cause environmental and health issues. Nitrogen, in its elemental form, is inert and non-reactive due to the triple bond between the two nitrogen atoms, making it challenging for most organisms to use directly.
Industrial processes like the Haber-Bosch process convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, a form of nitrogen that can be utilized by plants. Nitrate contamination in groundwater and surface water is a significant concern due to its potential.
Nitrogen cycles through ecosystems in various forms, from atmospheric nitrogen to organic nitrogen in living organisms, playing a critical role in the biosphere's functioning. Due to Nitrate potential to cause eutrophication and health problems in humans, such as methemoglobinemia.

Comparison Chart

Chemical Form

Polyatomic ion (NO3-)
Diatomic gas (N2)

Role in Nature

Nutrient in soil, can cause environmental issues
Essential element for life, makes up 78% of Earth's atmosphere

Use in Agriculture

Used in fertilizers
Converted to ammonia for fertilizer

Environmental Concerns

Water contamination, eutrophication
Limited direct concerns, but its reactive forms can cause issues

Biological Availability

Directly usable by plants and some microbes
Must be fixed into a reactive form like ammonia to be utilized by most organisms

Compare with Definitions


Plays a crucial role in the nitrogen cycle by being a form that plants can absorb.
Nitrate is converted from ammonia by nitrifying bacteria in soil.


A colorless, odorless gas that forms about 78% of the Earth's atmosphere.
Nitrogen is inert and non-reactive under standard conditions.


A negatively charged ion composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms.
Nitrate levels in drinking water are monitored due to health risks.


Integral for the synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids.
Nitrogen fixation is a critical process in the nitrogen cycle.


High nitrate levels can indicate water pollution.
Monitoring nitrate levels in rivers can help assess ecological health.


Plays a role in climate regulation through its cycle.
Nitrogen-based fertilizers influence greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.


Excessive intake can lead to conditions like methemoglobinemia.
Infant formulas must be prepared with water low in nitrates to prevent health issues.


Used in the manufacture of ammonia, nitric acid, and explosives.
The Haber process converts nitrogen gas into ammonia.


Nitrates are assimilated by plants to synthesize proteins.
Fertilizers rich in nitrates are essential for agricultural productivity.


Nitrogen gas is used to create inert atmospheres for chemical reactions.
Food packaging often uses nitrogen gas to preserve freshness.


Nitrate is a polyatomic ion with the chemical formula NO−3. Salts containing this ion are called nitrates.


Nitrogen is the chemical element with the symbol N and atomic number 7. It was first discovered and isolated by Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford in 1772.


A salt or ester of nitric acid, containing the anion NO₃⁻ or the group —NO₃
Preserved meat and vegetables contain nitrates
Fish-fry populations are damaged by nitrate


A nonmetallic element that constitutes nearly four-fifths of the air by volume, occurring as a colorless, odorless, almost inert diatomic gas, N2, in various minerals and in all proteins and used in a wide variety of applications, including manufacture of ammonia, nitric acid, TNT, and fertilizers, and as a cryogen. Atomic number 7; atomic weight 14.0067; melting point -210.00°C; boiling point -195.80°C; valence 2, 3, 4, 5. See Periodic Table.


Treat (a substance) with nitric acid, especially so as to introduce nitro groups
A powerful nitrating agent
Nitrated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons


(uncountable) The chemical element (symbol N) with an atomic number of 7 and atomic weight of 14.0067. It is a colorless and odorless gas. Category:en:Nitrogen


The univalent anionic group NO3, derived from nitric acid, or a compound containing this group.


(uncountable) Molecular nitrogen (N2), a colorless, odorless gas at room temperature.


Fertilizer consisting of sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, or ammonium nitrate.


(countable) A specific nitrogen atom within a chemical formula, or a specific isotope of nitrogen
The two nitrogens are located next to one another on the ring.


To treat with nitric acid or a nitrate, usually to change (an organic compound) into a nitrate.


A colorless nonmetallic element of atomic number 7, tasteless and odorless, comprising four fifths of the atmosphere by volume in the form of molecular nitrogen (N2). It is chemically very inert in the free state, and as such is incapable of supporting life (hence the name azote still used by French chemists); but it forms many important compounds, such as ammonia, nitric acid, the cyanides, etc, and is a constituent of all organized living tissues, animal or vegetable. Symbol N. Atomic weight 14.007. It was formerly regarded as a permanent noncondensible gas, but was liquefied in 1877 by Cailletet of Paris, and Pictet of Geneva, and boils at -195.8 ° C at atmospheric pressure. Liquid nitrogen is used as a refrigerant to store delicate materials, such as bacteria, cells, and other biological materials.


(chemistry) Any salt or ester of nitric acid. Category:en:Nitrogen


A common nonmetallic element that is normally a colorless odorless tasteless inert diatomic gas; constitutes 78 percent of the atmosphere by volume; a constituent of all living tissues


To treat, or react, with nitric acid or a nitrate


A salt of nitric acid.


Any compound containing the nitrate group (such as a salt or ester of nitric acid)


Treat with nitric acid, so as to change an organic compound into a nitrate;
Nitroglycerin is obtained by nitrating glycerol

Common Curiosities

Why is nitrogen important?

Nitrogen is a fundamental building block of amino acids, proteins, and DNA.

Where is nitrogen found?

Nitrogen is primarily found in the atmosphere as a diatomic gas.

Can humans breathe pure nitrogen?

While nitrogen is non-toxic, breathing pure nitrogen can lead to suffocation by displacing oxygen.

What is nitrogen fixation?

The process of converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by living organisms.

How do plants use nitrate?

Plants absorb nitrate from the soil and convert it into proteins and other molecules.

What are the environmental concerns with nitrate?

Excessive nitrate can contaminate water sources and lead to eutrophication.

How can nitrate contamination be reduced?

By managing fertilizer use and treating wastewater effectively.

How do nitrates affect aquatic ecosystems?

They can lead to algae blooms, which deplete oxygen and harm aquatic life.

What is nitrate?

Nitrate is a compound containing nitrogen and oxygen, used by plants as a nutrient.

How do humans contribute nitrogen to the environment?

Through the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and burning fossil fuels.

Are nitrates harmful to humans?

In high concentrations, nitrates can be harmful, especially to infants.

How is nitrogen used in the industry?

As a raw material in the production of ammonia, nitric acid, and other chemicals.

What is the difference between nitrate and nitrite?

Nitrite (NO2-) has one less oxygen atom than nitrate (NO3-).

Why is nitrogen essential for plant growth?

It is a key component of chlorophyll, which plants use for photosynthesis.

What role does nitrate play in the water cycle?

Nitrates can be leached into waterways, affecting aquatic life and water quality.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Maham Liaqat
Co-written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.

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