Jaroslav Heyrovský and the Polarography

Jaroslav Heyrovský (1890 – 1967)

Jaroslav Heyrovský (18901967)

On December 20, 1890, Czech chemist and inventor Jaroslav Heyrovský was born. Jaroslav Heyrovský received the 1959 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery and development of the polarographic methods of analysis” (1922), which is one of the most versatile analytical techniques. It applies the principle that in electrolysis the ions are discharged at an electrode and, if the electrode is small, the current may be limited by the rate of movement of ions to the electrode surface.

Jaroslav Heyrovský attended Charles University in Prague where he studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics. In 1910, he continued his education at University College London. During World War I, Heyrovský was occupied as a dispensing chemist and radiologist in a military hospital. There he was able to continue his studies and to take his Ph.D. degree in Prague in 1918 and D.Sc. in London in 1921.At the Institute of Analytical Chemistry of the Charles University, Prague, Heyrovský started his university career. After first being assistant to Professor B. Brauner, he was promoted to Associate Professor in 1922 and in 1926 he became the University’s first Professor of Physical Chemistry.

Around 1922, he invented the polarographic method. Polarography is a voltammetric measurement. Its response is determined by combined diffusion/convection mass transport. Polarography is a specific type of measurement that falls into the general category of linear-sweep voltammetry where the electrode potential is altered in a linear fashion from the initial potential to the final potential. As a linear sweep method controlled by convection/diffusion mass transport, the current vs. potential response of a polarographic experiment has the typical sigmoidal shape. What makes polarography different from other linear sweep voltammetry measurements is that polarography makes use of the dropping mercury electrode (DME) or the static mercury drop electrode. A plot of the current vs. potential in a polarography experiment shows the current oscillations corresponding to the drops of Hg falling from the capillary. If one connected the maximum current of each drop, a sigmoidal shape would result. The limiting current (the plateau on the sigmoid), called the diffusion current because diffusion is the principal contribution to the flux of electroactive material at this point of the Hg drop life.

Throughout his further career, Heyrovský developed this new branch of electrochemistry. He even formed a school of Czech polarographers at the University, and kept researching polarography. In 1950 Heyrovský was appointed Director of the newly established Polarographic Institute which has since been incorporated into the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences since 1952. In 1959, Jaroslav Heyrovský received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry “for his discovery and development of the polarographic methods of analysis”.

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