Lighting a lucifer to celebrate the invention of the friction match

The 1st of May, besides being International Workers Day, is also the day in 1859 that the Englishman John Walker, inventor of friction matches, died.

Walker’s matches, developed in 1826, were small wooden sticks with the tip coated in sulphur with a mixture of potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide and sugar, bound together with gum arabic. He arrived at this mixture after several previous failed attempts. Walker, recognising the potential of his invention, started selling his matches, packaged in boxes of 50 together with a folded piece of sandpaper as a striking surface. Even though he never patented his invention, he managed to earn a good income through the sale of his matches.

Lighting a modern day safety match - much safer than lighting John Walker's 1826 friction matches!  (© All Rights Reserved)
Lighting a modern day safety match – much safer than lighting John Walker’s 1826 friction matches!
(© All Rights Reserved)

John Walker wasn’t the first guy to come up with the idea of friction matches – some 10 years earlier in 1816, Frenchman Francois Derosne attempted something similar, using sulphur-tipped sticks that had to be scraped inside a phosphorous-lined tube. Derosne was, however, unable to make his matches stable enough to be practically viable.

While Walker’s matches worked better than those of Derosne, they were still quite unstable and flammable, and sometimes flaming balls of the ignition mixture dripped from the lit match, burning holes in clothing, carpets etc. This led to them being banned in France and Germany.

Over the next few years, many improvements were introduced to Walker’s friction matches. Most early versions were still volatile, lighting with a strong chemical reaction, burning with unsteady flames, and casting sparks over quite a distance. These early matches came to be known as ‘lucifers’ – a term that persisted into the 20th century and is still used in some countries.

It took almost 20 years before the modern-day safety match was developed in 1844. The main innovation in the safety match lay in the striking surface rather than the match. By including red phosphorous in the striking surface, the ignition mixture on the match could be made less volatile. The safety match was perfected and commercialised by Swedish brothers Johan Edvard and Carl Frans Lundstrom, who sold around 12 million boxes of matches between 1851 and 1858.

Sweden remained the home of safety matches until the start of the 20th century, with the safety matches as we know it today, still being very similar to those developed in the 1850’s.

So next time you light a match, think about the fact that you’re using an invention that is almost 170 years old!

About aerosols, spray dispensers and atomisers

It’s 8 April, and today we commemorate the day way, way back in 1862, the American John D Lynde received a US patent for the first aerosol dispenser, described in the patent as an “improved bottle for aerated liquids”. While the concept dates back as far as 1790, it appears this was the first time it was patented.

The content of an aerosol dispenser, released as a fine mist.(© All Rights Reserved)
The content of an aerosol dispenser, released as a fine mist.
(© All Rights Reserved)

According to the The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, an aerosol dispenser, also known as a spray dispenser when dispensing larger particles, is basically a “device designed to produce a fine spray of liquid or solid particles that can be suspended in a gas such as the atmosphere.” The dispenser is often a pressurised container that holds the substance to be dispersed together with a propellant. It has a valve release mechanism – when the valve is opened, the propellant forces the substance through a small hole, and it is distributed as a fine mist spray. Various propellants have been used over the years, with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) being a common choice until it was banned in 1989 through the Montreal Protocol because of its detrimental effect on the earth’s ozone layer. Newer, less destructive propellants include propane, butane and other volatile hydrocarbons. The downside of these is that they are flammable. Spray dispensers containing foodstuffs (cooking spray, whipped cream etc) often use nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide as propellant, while medical aerosols such as asthma inhalers use hydrofluoroalkanes.

An even less harmful form of aerosol dispenser, known as an ‘atomiser’, uses a hand/finger operated pump, rather than a stored gas, to produce pressure in the container in order to propel the contents as a spray.

Teflon, the accidentally discovered super polymer

It was on this day in 1938 that Roy J Plunkett and his technician Jack Rebok, employees at Kinetic Chemicals, accidentally discovered Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, aka PTFE).

Plunkett was working on new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants when the gas in one bottle appeared to be finished, even though the bottle still weighed the same as full bottles. Curious about this, the container was sawn open, and instead of gas, Plunkett & Rebok discovered a slippery, waxy white powder. This was found to be polymerised perfluoroethylene, and further analysis showed the material had some rather unique properties – it was highly hydrophobic, had one of the lowest friction coefficients of any known solid, and was chemically inert with a very high melting point.

Realising they had something special on their hands, the material was patented by DuPont, founding owners of Kinetic Chemicals, and the trademark Teflon was registered in 1945.

Teflon - the super-polymer known by most as a non-stick coating in pots and pans.(© All Rights Reserved)
Teflon – the super-polymer known by most as a non-stick coating in pots and pans.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Its unique properties has resulted in Teflon finding application in a range of highly disparate domains. Its unusually low friction coefficient means that it is an excellent lubricant in applications requiring dry lubrication, reducing friction, wear and energy consumption in the machinery where it is used. Its chemical inertness makes it an excellent coating material in valves, seals and pipes carrying highly reactive and corrosive chemicals. Its hydrophobic qualities has resulted in it being incorporated as a membrane in Gore-Tex, a popular, breathable waterproofing material. It has been used in thread seal tape, applied to the feet of computer mice, as a coating for bullets and as a highly effective air filtration membrane, among many other applications.

And we all know how pervasive it has become as a non-stick coating for cooking pots and pans, thanks to its hydrophobic properties. Interestingly, the first pans using non-stick Teflon coating, the Tefal range, were developed in 1954 by a French engineer Marc Gregoire, who developed the cookware coating at the recommendation of his wife Collete, who saw him use it on his fishing tackle. (In some countries Tefal is marketed as T-Fal as a result of DuPont’s insistence that ‘Tefal’ sounded too similar to ‘Teflon’.)

It’s probably safe to say that Teflon is one of the most diversely applied modern materials – not bad for a polymer discovered by accident!

Celebrating yummy, syrupy, sticky caramel.

It’s April 5th, which means it’s Caramel Day – the perfect opportunity to go all gooey about sweet, syrupy caramel.

Caramel in a chocolate shell - now that's what an easter egg should look like!(© All Rights Reserved)
Caramel in a chocolate shell – now that’s what an easter egg should look like!
(© All Rights Reserved)

There are basically two ‘categories’ (for lack of a better word) of caramel. First, there’s caramelised sugar – when sugar is heated to around 170 °C, the molecules in the sugar breaks down and re-arranges itself as a smooth, shiny tan/brown syrup. When caramelised sugar cools down, it sets and becomes hard and shiny – most kids know and love this type of candy as used in caramel toffee apples, for instance, where an apple on a stick is dipped in caramelised sugar syrup and allowed to cool and set.

Then there’s the runny, creamy caramel that we find in toffees, inside caramel chocolates etc. This is something very different, and is made by cooking a mixture of butter, sugar, milk/cream and vanilla. As the mixture heats up, the sugar reacts with the amino acids in the milk, resulting in the caramel’s brown colour. This reaction between sugar and amino acids in the presence of heat is known as the ‘Maillard reaction’ – a form of non enzymatic browning. The same reaction is responsible for the browning of roasted meat and fried onions, roasted coffee and the browned crust of baked bread, among others.

The level of ‘runny-ness’ of this second category of caramel depends on the relative amounts of the ingredients, ranging from fairly solid, sticky caramel toffees through to smooth, soft and creamy caramel sauce.

From rock-hard caramelised sugar to smooth, creamy caramel sauce – the world of sweets and desserts would surely be a much poorer place without caramel!

Celebrating the Bunsen burner, a staple in every chemistry lab

So it’s the last day of March, and we celebrate Bunsen Burner Day. Anyone who did chemistry in high school will remember the trusty Bunsen burner, a staple tool in avery chemistry lab, and more often than not a key part in some seriously derailed chemistry experiments.

In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.(© All Rights Reserved)
In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bunsen Burner Day is celebrated on 31 March in honour of Robert Wilhelm Eberhard von Bunsen (31 March 1811 – 16 August 1899), German chemistry professor and inventor of various pieces of laboratory equipment, including the Bunsen burner. The science behind the way a Bunsen burner works is similar to that used in gas stoves and gas furnaces. The burner is connected via a tube to a container with flammable gas, and as the burner is opened, the gas flows through a small hole in the bottom of the burner’s barrel. Openings in the side of the tube allow air into the gas stream, and the mixture is ignited by a spark or flame at the top of the tube. The amount of air mixed in with the gas can be controlled by opening or closing the gaps at the base of the barrel – as the amount of air is increased up to an optimal point, the combustion becomes more complete, resulting in a hotter flame – as it heats up, the flame becomes blue and transparent, becoming almost invisible at its optimal level.

To this day, Bunsen burners remain a laboratory staple, and it is used on a daily basis in literally thousands of laboratories around the world.

The birth of the humble rubber band

It was on this day, 17 March 1845, that the elastic rubber band, made from vulcanised rubber, was patented by it’s English inventor Stephen Perry. Around the same time, Jaroslav Kurash also independently came up with his version of the rubber band.

While this counts as the ‘invention of the modern rubber band’, it is by no means the first occurrence in history of these super-useful little binding tools. Many years before the Mayans had already used the sap from rubber trees to create elastic strands to bind things together.

The rubber band - another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.(© All Rights Reserved)
The rubber band – another of those simple yet super-useful inventions that I find endlessly impressive.
(© All Rights Reserved)

From their modern-day invention in 1845 it took almost 80 years before William Spencer first started mass producing rubber bands in Ohio, USA. And the rest, as they say, is history – it is nigh impossible to imagine a world without rubber bands.

Throughout history two types of rubber have been used to manufacture rubber bands – natural rubber or latex from rubber trees, and synthetic rubber, a by-product of crude oil refinement. Modern day rubber bands are basically created by extruding rubber into long tubes of varying colour, thickness and diameter. These elastic tubes are sliced into thin circles, creating rubber bands as we know them.

Very simply stated, rubber consists of chains of molecules bonded in such a way that the molecules can move, thus allowing the rubber to be stretched. The bonds between the molecules pull them back together again, causing rubber’s elasticity. Of course it is possible to stretch a rubber band too far, severing the bonds between the molecules, and causing the rubber band to snap. Over time, light and heat also weakens the chains of molecules, resulting in the bands to get brittle and more readily breakable.

Can you believe that the biggest rubber band ball (a ball created by wrapping rubber bands around each other ) was created by Joel Waul in 2008 in Florida, USA? It weighed a whopping 9400 pounds, exceeded 8 feet in height, and consisted of more than 700 000 rubber bands!?

James Dewar, frozen air and a new way to store energy

Today is the second time we meet up with Scottish scientist James Dewar. We’ve already discussed his ingenious Dewar flask, made famous by the Thermos company. As mentioned at the time, Dewar worked with some rather chilly subjects – liquified and frozen gases, to be exact – and he created his insulating flask to serve his practical need for a container that could maintain the low temperatures of the liquified gases he studied.

The reason Dewar pops up on this blog today, is again related to his low temperature work. It was on this day, 9 March 1893, that he informed a meeting of the Royal Society that he had succeeded in freezing air into a clear and transparent solid. As reported in The Manufacturer and Builder Volume 25 Issue 7, he requested additional funding to further study the exact properties of this frozen air; he postulated that “it may be a jelly of solid nitrogen containing liquid oxygen, much as calves’ foot jelly contains water diffused in solid gelatine. Or it may be a true ice of liquid air, in which both oxygen and nitrogen exist in the solid form.” Part of this confusion on the part of Dewar was that he had not been able to freeze pure oxygen, hence it was not clear how the oxygen part of the frozen air behaved.

I have no idea how frozen air would look, but it will surely be very, very chilly!(© All Rights Reserved)
I have no idea how frozen air would look, but it will surely be very, very chilly!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interestingly, frozen air has recently resurfaced as an subject of research interest. As reported last year on various sites such as ecogeek, sustainable business.com and NBC News, a UK-based company Highview Power Storage has developed a proprietary process using cryogenic air (actually nitrogen, liquified at -321 degrees Fahrenheit) as a way to store energy. Available energy is used to freeze/liquify the nitrogen, which is then kept in its frozen form in a highly isolated, giant vacuum flask. When energy is required, the nitrogen is allowed to warm to ambient temperature, and the energy released during its transition to a gas phase, is harvested to drive a turbine that generates electricity.

While the technology is not yet able to achieve the efficiency of current battery technologies, it is a potentially less environmentally harmful, greener approach.

Now there’s a reason to raise a glass of very chilled liquid to James Dewar and his frozen air!

Stanley Miller, primordial soup and the origin of life

Today we celebrate the birthday of Stanley Lloyd Miller (7 March 1930 – 2 May 2007), the American chemist and biologist known for his experiments into the origin of life.

The most famous of his experiments was the so-called ‘Miller-Urey experiment’, where he and his research partner Harold Urey showed that it was possible, using simple chemical and physical processes, to create organic compounds from inorganic substances. This was considered a logical explanation of how organic life could have started on an planet made up of inorganic chemicals.

In my minds eye I've always imagined primordial soup as a rather ominous-looking pond of bubbling and steaming chemical liquid, very much like the thermal geysers at Rotorua, New Zealand. (© All Rights Reserved)
In my minds eye I’ve always imagined primordial soup as a rather ominous-looking pond of bubbling and steaming chemical liquid, very much like the thermal geysers at Rotorua, New Zealand.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The famous Miller-Urey experiment, conducted in 1952 at the University of Chicago, tried to recreate the conditions existing on the early Earth before organic life existed. The experiment combined a number of chemical compounds – water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen – sealed in an connected loop of glass tubes and flasks. The first flask, containing the chemical mix, was heated to cause evaporation, and the gas was allowed to flow into a second flask where sparks (simulating lightning) were fired between electrodes installed in the flask. The ‘electrocuted gas’ was then cooled again in a subsequent flask, and the condensed liquid was allowed to trickle back into the first flask. This cycle was continued over an extended period.

After about a day, the chemical liquid was reported to turn pink, and after about 2 weeks of operation, Miller and Urey found that some of the carbon in the system had turned into organic compounds. By this stage the mixture included amino acids, sugars, bio-molecules and hydrocarbons.

The Miller-Urey experiments showed, quite compellingly, that simple organic compounds – building blocks for proteins and other organic macromolecules – could be created from basic chemical compounds with the addition of heat and electricity.

The spontaneously created brew of life-yielding organic compounds support the ‘primordial soup’ theory first proposed by Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin in 1924. Very simply stated, the theory suggests that the early Earth’s atmosphere, exposed to various forms of energy, produced simple organic compounds, which accumulated as a ‘soup’ in various locations, and through further transformations, more complex organic polymers were formed, leading ultimately to the formation of water-based organic life forms.

Bernard Courtois and his beautiful violet vapor

It’s chemistry time again, folks… Today we celebrate the birthday of Bernard Courtois (8 Feb 1777 – 27 Sep 1838), the French chemist from Dijon who discovered iodine.

Iodine, courtesy of Bernard Courtois.(© All Rights Reserved)
Iodine, courtesy of Bernard Courtois.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Courtois’ father worked as a saltpeter manufacturer, and instilled in his son an interest in chemistry and pharmacy. He studied pharmacy and, while working with Armand Seguin at the Ecole Polytechnique, he investigated opium. During this period, Courtois and Seguin managed to isolate pure morphine, the first known alkaloid, from opium.

His greatest contribution, however, came after he returned to Dijon to assist in his father’s saltpeter business. Traditionally, wood ash was used as the source of potassium nitrate for the saltpeter, but due to a wood ash shortage they turned to using seaweed as an alternative source. In 1811, while extracting sodium and potassium extracts from seaweed ash, Courtois accidentally stumbled upon a new element – adding sulfuric acid to the ash resulted in the appearance of a beautiful violet vapor that condensed into deep violet crystals resembling graphite.

Iodine has since proved an important trace element in human and animal biology. It is a key constituent of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine. The thyroid gland requires about 70 µg/day to synthesize these hormones, but additional iodine (RDA 150 µg/day for adults) is necessary to support the function of a range of biological systems in the body. Since iodine is scarce in nature (it is mainly available, as Courtois discovered 200 years ago, in ocean-based sources such as seaweed) it is often included as an additive in iodised salt, for example, to ensure that we get a sufficient daily dose.

Even though Courtois did not, at the time, realise that he had discovered a new element, he was subsequently acknowledged as the true discoverer of iodine. In 1831 he received the Montyon Prize from the L’Academie royale des sciences for his work. He never gained any financial benefit from his discovery, though, and his obituary in the Journal de chimie médicale strikes quite a sad note:

“Bernard Courtois, the discoverer of iodine, died at Paris the 27th of September, 1838, leaving his widow without fortune. If, on making this discovery, Courtois had taken out a certificate of invention, he would have realized a large estate.”

Felix Hoffmann and the invention of Aspirin

Our topic for today is Aspirin. It’s the birthday today of Felix Hoffmann (21 Jan 1868 – 8 Feb 1946), the German chemist and lead investigator at Bayer and Co who was responsible for the creation of aspirin.

Hoffmann’s interest in researching new pain medication was fueled by his father’s chronic rheumatism. At the time the best pain killer was salicylic acid (originally extracted from the bark and leaves of the willow tree) which caused some rather nasty stomach upsets and had had a really vile taste to boot.

Aspirin - still one of the most popular medications in the world, more than a century after its invention.(© All Rights Reserved)
Aspirin – still one of the most popular medications in the world, more than a century after its invention.
(© All Rights Reserved)

In 1897, on 10 Aug, Hoffmann synthesised aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), by acetylating salicylic acid with acetic acid. He was not the first to prepare acetylsalicylic acid, but what made the Bayer version superior was that the salicylic acid was in the form of salicin derived from Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet), which caused less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid. Clinical trials by Bayer showed the new drug provided effective pain relief, lowered fever and had anti-inflammatory properties.

In addition to the above benefits of aspirin, it has also been shown to have an antiplatelet  effect in blood. As such, long-term low doses of aspirin is an effective treatment to help prevent blood clot formation, heart attacks and strokes.

Of course, as with all medication, it’s not all positive. Some of the not-so-great side effects, particularly with aspirin taken orally, include potential gastrointestinal ulcers and stomach bleeding. Due to these side-effects, and more specifically the potential of Reye’s syndrome (a severe brain disease that can result from administering aspirin to children), it is no longer prescribed to treat flu, chickenpox etc in children and adolescents.

To this day aspirin remains one of the most widely used medications in the world, and it is estimated that annual consumption is around 40 000 tonnes. Even though Hoffmann’s name is on the aspirin patent, it was owned by Bayer and he received no financial share in its huge international success.

Postscript: To add a sinister twist to our story, even though official records show Felix Hoffmann as the lead investigator on the aspirin project, a Jewish chemist, Arthur Eichengrun, later claimed to have been the project lead, and that records of his contribution were expunged under the Nazi regime. Stranger things have happened at the time, and I guess that is a controversy that is unlikely to be clarified anytime soon.