Christian Friedrich Schönbein and the Ozone

Christian Friedrich Schönbein

Christian Friedrich Schönbein

On October 18, 1799, German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein was born. Schönbein is best known for inventing the fuel cell (1838) and his discoveries of guncotton (nitrocellulose) and ozone.

Christian Friedrich Schönbein was apprenticed at a pharmaceutical factory in Böblingen and was adviced to begin studying at the university. Schönbein enrolled at the University of Erlangen in 1820 were he got to know Justus Liebig Friedrich Schelling, who later helped Schönbein to finance his studies. Schönbein started his teaching activities in chemistry, physics and mineralology near Rudolstadt before going to England and later Paris. In France, the scientist was educated for instance by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Louis Jacques Thénard, and André-Marie Ampère. At the age of 29, Schönbein was appointed professor without title at the University of Basel where he earned his honorary doctor’s degree and was appointed professor of chemistry in 1829. It is believed that during his years in Basel, Schönbein devoted much of his free time to improving the living conditions in the city including hygiene as well as education and lighting.

While doing experiments on the electrolysis of water at the University of Basel, Christian Friedrich Schönbein first began to notice a distinctive odor in his lab. The smell gave Schönbein the clue to the presence of a new product from his experiments. Because of the pronounced smell, Schönbein coined the term “ozone” for the new gas, from the Greek word “ozein”, meaning “to smell”. Schönbein described his discoveries in publications in 1840. He later found that the smell of ozone was similar to that produced by the slow oxidation of white phosphorus. The ozone smell Schönbein detected is the same as that occurring in the vicinity of a thunderstorm, an odor that indicates the presence of ozone in the atmosphere.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, ozone was considered a healthy component of the environment by naturalists and health-seekers. The Beaumont, California, had as its official slogan “Beaumont: Zone of Ozone,” as evidenced on postcards and Chamber of Commerce letterhead. Naturalists working outdoors often considered the higher elevations beneficial because of their ozone content. “There is quite a different atmosphere with enough ozone to sustain the necessary energy to work,” wrote naturalist Henry Henshaw, working in Hawaii. Seaside air was considered to be healthy because of its “ozonecontent but the smell giving rise to this belief is in fact that of halogenated seaweed metabolites.

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