Sunday, December 5, 2010

Don't Try This at Home!

Really - don't try this at home.  

His wife told him repeatedly not to do it.  But one day in 1845, while his wise and good wife was away, Professor Christian Friedrich Schönbein of the University of Basel in Switzerland was doing chemistry experiments in his own kitchen.  During the course of his experiments, he spilled a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids on his kitchen table and used wife's cotton apron - he was using it as a lab apron - to clean up the mess.  Realizing that his wife was on her way home, he finished cleaning up and hung the apron over a warm stove to dry.  Once dry, the apron ignited spontaneously and nearly burned down the house, which did not make Frau Schönbein very happy.

Professor Schönbein  discovered a new, safer (believe it or not) way to make nitrocellulose - what came to be known as "guncotton," a kind of smokeless gunpowder that gave off much less ash than black powder and released far more gas on ignition.  For his discovery, he was awarded U.S. Patent No. 4874 on December 5, 1846.  But the story doesn't end there.  It turns out that nitrocellulose can be dissolved in acetone and used for casting excellent polymer films.  As such, it was used as a varnish to coat furniture and billiard balls.  Add a little camphor to plasticize it and nitrocellulose is a great, although flammable, base for photographic movie films; for which it was used until 1951, when it was decided that a few too many movie theaters had been burned down.  Scientists also found nitrocellulose useful for detecting alpha particles and immobilizing proteins for studies in an atomic force microscope.

As for Schönbein, his wife did not throw him out.  He also was the first to discover ozone while he was experimenting with the electrolysis of water and also invented what came to be known as the fuel cell, used by astronauts to generate electricity and make water during space travel.

No comments:

Post a Comment