Neil Bartlett and Reactive Noble Gases
Neil Bartlett demonstrates reactive noble gases, 1962. Today, noble gas compounds produce laser beams used in eye surgery and create anti-tumor agents.
Bartlett demonstrated in 1962 that the “inertness” of the Group VIII elements was a result of the reagents used in previous experiments, not a fundamental law of nature. Bartlett’s proof that the Rare Gases were not chemically inert meant that all existing textbooks had to be rewritten.
Scientists had always believed that noble gases, also known as inert or rare gases, were chemically unable to react. Helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon (all gases at room temperature) were viewed as the “loners” of the Periodic Table. Their inertness became a basic tenet of chemistry, published in textbooks and taught in classrooms throughout the world.
In March of 1962, Bartlett concocted a simple experiment to test his hypothesis. He set up a glass apparatus containing PtF6 — a red gas — in one container and xenon — a colorless gas — in an adjoining container, separated by a seal. The reaction took place at room temperature “in the twinkling of an eye” and was “extraordinarily exhilarating,” recalls Bartlett. He was certain that the orange-yellow solid was the world’s first noble gas compound. But convincing others would prove somewhat difficult. The prevailing attitude was that no scientist could violate one of the basic tenets of chemistry: the inertness of noble gases. Bartlett insisted that he had, to the amusement and disbelief of some of his colleagues! The proof was in the new compound he had made. That orange-yellow solid was subsequently identified in laboratory studies as xenon hexafluoroplatinate (XePtF6), the world’s first noble gas compound.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to learn more about Bartlett and his work with noble gases.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program