Origins of the Sulfuric Acid Industry
In addition to his work with the properties of gases, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac contributed to the development of the sulfuric acid industry. Gay-Lussac died on this day in 1850.
Sulfuric acid is the workhorse chemical of the industrial world. It is made in greater volume than any other product of the chemical industry. Its use is so widespread that during the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, fluctuations in its output were considered a good barometer of overall business conditions. It is, moreover, the first chemical to have been made on an industrial scale.
Until the 18th century, demand for sulfuric acid was slight; small amounts were consumed in preparing nitric and hydrochloric acids for use in treating or assaying nonferrous metals. It was produced, for the most part, by burning sulfur in bell-shaped earthenware vessels, with the resulting sulfur dioxide absorbed in water. In the 17th century, saltpeter and sodium nitrate were found to enhance the reaction; they served as catalysts, unbeknownst to the chemical producers of that time.
In 1746, John Roebuck, an English physician, built a boxlike chamber from riveted sheets of lead, the only inexpensive metal known at the time that was resistant to sulfuric acid. In such a lead chamber, Roebuck could produce a hundred pounds or more of sulfuric acid at a time, compared with only a few pounds possible in a glass jar.
In 1827, the French chemist Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac devised a tower that recovered most of the nitrogen oxide gases formed, thereby reducing consumption of saltpeter. The first Gay-Lussac tower was installed at a plant in France in 1837. But its use was not widespread until John Glover invented a second type of tower, patented in England in 1859, in which the acid was concentrated and more of the nitrogen oxides were recovered. By the 1870s, the Glover–Gay-Lussac system was used with lead chambers in Britain and throughout Europe.
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Excerpted with permission, Today’s Chemist
Copyright © 2001 American Chemical Society