Christian Friedrich Schönbein – Ozone and Explosives

Christian Friedrich Schönbein

Christian Friedrich Schönbein

On August 29, 1868, German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein passed away. Schönbein is best known for inventing the fuel cell (1838) at the same time as William Robert Grove and his discoveries of guncotton and ozone, of which he also coined its name.

Christian Friedrich Schönbein was apprenticed to a chemical and pharmaceutical firm at Böblingen when he was 13 years old. Due to his hard work and the sufficient scientific skills and knowledge he studied for, Schönbein completed an examination by the professor of chemistry at Tübingen. After several moves and further university studies, Schönbein eventually acquired a position at the University of Basel in 1828. He was announced full professor in 1835.

At the University of Basel, Christian Friedrich Schönbein performed experiments on the electrolysis of water. He noticed a distinctive odor in his lab, which gave the scientist a clue to the presence of a new product from his experiments. Because of the distinctive smell, Schönbein coined the term ozone for the new gas, originating from the Greek word ozein – to smell. Schönbein’s discoveries were published in 1840. Later on, the scientist found that this particular smell of ozone was similar to that produced by the slow oxidation of white phosphorus.

Sometimes, Christian Friedrich Schönbein secretly experimented in his homes’ kitchen – even though his wife told him not to. In 1845 (when his wife was not at home), Schönbein spilled a mixture of nitric acid and sulfuric acid. The scientist used his wife’s cotton apron to mop it up, and he hung the apron over the stove to dry. however, the cloth spontaneously ignited and burned so quickly that it seemed to disappear. Schönbein had converted the cellulose of the apron, with the nitro groups serving as an internal source of oxygen. When heated, the cellulose was completely and suddenly oxidized.

Schönbein soon realized the possibilities of his new discoveries. In contrast to ordinary black powder, which exploded into thick smoke, nitrocellulose was perceived as a possible smokeless powder and a propellant for artillery shells thus it received the name of guncotton.

At first, it was nearly impossible to manufacture  guncotton for military use, because the factories were prone to explode and, above all else, the burning speed of straight guncotton was always too high. In 1884, Paul Vieille tamed guncotton into a successful progressive smokeless gunpowder called Poudre B. Seven years later, James Dewar and Frederick Augustus Abel transformed gelatinized guncotton into a safe mixture, called cordite because it could be extruded into long thin cords before being dried.

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