Antoine Lavoisier

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Antoine Lavoisier : biography

26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794

Oxygen Theory of Combustion

During the summer and fall of 1772 Lavoisier turned his attention to the phenomenon of combustion, the topic on which he was to make his most significant contribution to science. He reported the results of his first experiments on combustion in a note to the Academy on October 20 in which he reported that when phosphorus burned it combined with a large quantity of air to produce acid spirit of phosphorus (phosphoric acid) and that the phosphorus increased in weight on burning. In a second sealed note deposited with the Academy a few weeks later (November 1) Lavoisier extended his observations and conclusions to the burning of sulfur and went on to add that "what is observed in the combustion of sulfur and phosphorus may well take place in the case of all substances that gain in weight by combustion and calcination: and I am persuaded that the increase in weight of metallic calces is due to the same cause."

Joseph Black’s "fixed air"

During 1773 Lavoisier determined to review thoroughly the literature on air, particularly "fixed air," and to repeat many of the experiments of other workers in the field. He published an account of this review in 1774 in a book entitled Opuscules physiques et chimiques (Physical and Chemical Essays). In the course of this review he made his first full study of the work of Joseph Black, the Scottish chemist who had carried out a series of classic quantitative experiments on the mild and caustic alkalies. Black had shown that the difference between a mild alkali, for example, chalk (CaCO3), and the caustic form, for example, quicklime (CaO), lay in the fact that the former contained "fixed air," not common air fixed in the chalk, but a distinct chemical species, carbon dioxide (CO2), which was a constituent of the atmosphere. Lavoisier recognized that Black’s fixed air was identical with the air evolved when metal calces were reduced with the charcoal and even suggested that the air which combined with metals on calcination and increased the weight might be Black’s fixed air, that is, CO2.

Joseph Priestley

In the spring of 1774 Lavoisier carried out experiments on the calcination of tin and lead in sealed vessels which conclusively confirmed that the increase in weight of metals on calcination was due to combination with air. But the question remained about whether it was combination with common atmospheric air or with only a part of atmospheric air. In October the English chemist Joseph Priestley visited Paris, where he met Lavoisier and told him of the air which he had produced by heating the red calx of mercury with a burning glass and which had supported combustion with extreme vigor. Priestley at this time was unsure of the nature of this gas, but he felt that it was an especially pure form of common air. Lavoisier carried out his own researches on this peculiar substance. The result was his famous memoir On the Nature of the Principle Which Combines with Metals during Their Calcination and Increases Their Weight, read to the Academy on April 26, 1775 (commonly referred to as the Easter Memoir). In the original memoir Lavoisier showed that the mercury calx was a true metallic calx in that it could be reduced with charcoal, giving off Black’s fixed air in the process. and (English translation) When reduced without charcoal, it gave off an air which supported respiration and combustion in an enhanced way. He concluded that this was just a pure form of common air, and that it was the air itself "undivided, without alteration, without decomposition" which combined with metals on calcination.

After returning from Paris, Priestley took up once again his investigation of the air from mercury calx. His results now showed that this air was not just an especially pure form of common air but was "five or six times better than common air, for the purpose of respiration, inflammation, and … every other use of common air." He called the air dephlogisticated air, as he thought it was common air deprived of its phlogiston. Since it was therefore in a state to absorb a much greater quantity of phlogiston given off by burning bodies and respiring animals, the greatly enhanced combustion of substances and the greater ease of breathing in this air were explained.