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- Familiar Letters on Chemistry - 4/21 -
When gases are thus condensed, i.e. their particles made to approximate in this extraordinary manner, their properties can be palpably shown. Their chemical actions become apparent as their physical characteristic disappears. The latter consists in the continual tendency of their particles to separate from each other; and it is easy to imagine that this elasticity of gaseous bodies is the principal impediment to the operation of their chemical force; for this becomes more energetic as their particles approximate. In that state in which they exist within the pores or upon the surface of solid bodies, their repulsion ceases, and their whole chemical action is exerted. Thus combinations which oxygen cannot enter into, decompositions which it cannot effect while in the state of gas, take place with the greatest facility in the pores of platinum containing condensed oxygen. When a jet of hydrogen gas, for instance, is thrown upon spongy platinum, it combines with the oxygen condensed in the interior of the mass; at their point of contact water is formed, and as the immediate consequence heat is evolved; the platinum becomes red hot and the gas is inflamed. If we interrupt the current of the gas, the pores of the platinum become instantaneously filled again with oxygen; and the same phenomenon can be repeated a second time, and so on interminably.
In finely pulverised platinum, and even in spongy platinum, we therefore possess a perpetuum mobile--a mechanism like a watch which runs out and winds itself up--a force which is never exhausted--competent to produce effects of the most powerful kind, and self-renewed ad infinitum.
Many phenomena, formerly inexplicable, are satisfactorily explained by these recently discovered properties of porous bodies. The metamorphosis of alcohol into acetic acid, by the process known as the quick vinegar manufacture, depends upon principles, at a knowledge of which we have arrived by a careful study of these properties.
My dear Sir,
The manufacture of soda from common culinary salt, may be regarded as the foundation of all our modern improvements in the domestic arts; and we may take it as affording an excellent illustration of the dependence of the various branches of human industry and commerce upon each other, and their relation to chemistry.
Soda has been used from time immemorial in the manufacture of soap and glass, two chemical productions which employ and keep in circulation an immense amount of capital. The quantity of soap consumed by a nation would be no inaccurate measure whereby to estimate its wealth and civilisation. Of two countries, with an equal amount of population, the wealthiest and most highly civilised will consume the greatest weight of soap. This consumption does not subserve sensual gratification, nor depend upon fashion, but upon the feeling of the beauty, comfort, and welfare, attendant upon cleanliness; and a regard to this feeling is coincident with wealth and civilisation. The rich in the middle ages concealed a want of cleanliness in their clothes and persons under a profusion of costly scents and essences, whilst they were more luxurious in eating and drinking, in apparel and horses. With us a want of cleanliness is equivalent to insupportable misery and misfortune.
Soap belongs to those manufactured products, the money value of which continually disappears from circulation, and requires to be continually renewed. It is one of the few substances which are entirely consumed by use, leaving no product of any worth. Broken glass and bottles are by no means absolutely worthless; for rags we may purchase new cloth, but soap-water has no value whatever. It would be interesting to know accurately the amount of capital involved in the manufacture of soap; it is certainly as large as that employed in the coffee trade, with this important difference as respects Germany, that it is entirely derived from our own soil.
France formerly imported soda from Spain,--Spanish sodas being of the best quality--at an annual expenditure of twenty to thirty millions of francs. During the war with England the price of soda, and consequently of soap and glass, rose continually; and all manufactures suffered in consequence.
The present method of making soda from common salt was discovered by Le Blanc at the end of the last century. It was a rich boon for France, and became of the highest importance during the wars of Napoleon. In a very short time it was manufactured to an extraordinary extent, especially at the seat of the soap manufactories. Marseilles possessed for a time a monopoly of soda and soap. The policy of Napoleon deprived that city of the advantages derived from this great source of commerce, and thus excited the hostility of the population to his dynasty, which became favourable to the restoration of the Bourbons. A curious result of an improvement in a chemical manufacture! It was not long, however, in reaching England.
In order to prepare the soda of commerce (which is the carbonate) from common salt, it is first converted into Glauber's salt (sulphate of soda). For this purpose 80 pounds weight of concentrated sulphuric acid (oil of vitriol) are required to 100 pounds of common salt. The duty upon salt checked, for a short time, the full advantage of this discovery; but when the Government repealed the duty, and its price was reduced to its minimum, the cost of soda depended upon that of sulphuric acid.
The demand for sulphuric acid now increased to an immense extent; and, to supply it, capital was embarked abundantly, as it afforded an excellent remuneration. the origin and formation of sulphuric acid was studied most carefully; and from year to year, better, simpler, and cheaper methods of making it were discovered. With every improvement in the mode of manufacture, its price fell; and its sale increased in an equal ratio.
Sulphuric acid is now manufactured in leaden chambers, of such magnitude that they would contain the whole of an ordinary-sized house. As regards the process and the apparatus, this manufacture has reached its acme--scarcely is either susceptible of improvement. The leaden plates of which the chambers are constructed, requiring to be joined together with lead (since tin or solder would be acted on by the acid), this process was, until lately, as expensive as the plates themselves; but now, by means of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, the plates are cemented together at their edges by mere fusion, without the intervention of any kind of solder.
And then, as to the process: according to theory, 100 pounds weight of sulphur ought to produce 306 pounds of sulphuric acid; in practice 300 pounds are actually obtained; the amount of loss is therefore too insignificant for consideration.
Again; saltpetre being indispensable in making sulphuric acid, the commercial value of that salt had formerly an important influence upon its price. It is true that 100 pounds of saltpetre only are required to 1000 pounds of sulphur; but its cost was four times greater than an equal weight of the latter.
Travellers had observed near the small seaport of Yquiqui, in the district of Atacama, in Peru, an efflorescence covering the ground over extensive districts. This was found to consist principally of nitrate of soda. Advantage was quickly taken of this discovery. The quantity of this valuable salt proved to be inexhaustible, as it exists in beds extending over more than 200 square miles. It was brought to England at less than half the freight of the East India saltpetre (nitrate of potassa); and as, in the chemical manufacture neither the potash nor the soda were required, but only the nitric acid, in combination with the alkali, the soda-saltpetre of South America soon supplanted the potash-nitre of the East. The manufacture of sulphuric acid received a new impulse; its price was much diminished without injury to the manufacturer; and, with the exception of fluctuations caused by the impediments thrown in the way of the export of sulphur from Sicily, it soon became reduced to a minimum, and remained stationary.
Potash-saltpetre is now only employed in the manufacture of gunpowder; it is no longer in demand for other purposes; and thus, if Government effect a saving of many hundred thousand pounds annually in gunpowder, this economy must be attributed to the increased manufacture of sulphuric acid.
We may form an idea of the amount of sulphuric acid consumed, when we find that 50,000 pounds weight are made by a small manufactory, and from 200,000 to 600,000 pounds by a large one annually. This manufacture causes immense sums to flow annually into Sicily. It has introduced industry and wealth into the arid and desolate districts of Atacama. It has enabled us to obtain platina from its ores at a moderate and yet remunerating price; since the vats employed for concentrating this acid are constructed of this metal, and cost from 1000l. to 2000l. sterling. It leads to frequent improvements in the manufacture of glass, which continually becomes cheaper and more beautiful. It enables us to return to our fields all their potash--a most valuable and important manure--in the form of ashes, by substituting soda in the manufacture of glass and soap.
It is impossible to trace, within the compass of a letter, all the ramifications of this tissue of changes and improvements resulting from one chemical manufacture; but I must still claim your attention to a few more of its most important and immediate results. I have already told you, that in the manufacture of soda from culinary salt, it is first converted into sulphate of soda. In this first part of the process, the action of sulphuric acid produces muriatic acid to the extent of one-and-a-half the amount of the sulphuric acid employed. At first, the profit upon the soda was so great, that no one took the trouble to collect the muriatic acid: indeed it had no commercial value. A profitable application of it was, however, soon discovered: it is a compound of chlorine, and this substance may be obtained from it purer than from any other source. The bleaching power of chlorine has long been known; but it was only employed upon a large scale after it was obtained from this residuary muriatic acid, and it was found that in combination with lime it could be transported to distances without inconvenience. Thenceforth it was used for bleaching cotton; and, but for this new bleaching process, it would scarcely have been possible for the cotton manufacture of Great Britain to have attained its present enormous extent,--it could not have competed in price with France and Germany. In the old process of bleaching, every piece must be exposed to the air and light during several weeks in the summer, and
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