Nicolas Leblanc and the Leblanc Process

Leblanc Zylinderofen

Leblanc Zylinderofen

On December 6, 1742, French chemist and surgeon Nicolas Leblanc was born, who discovered how to manufacture soda from common salt. The eponymous Leblanc process became one of the most important industrial processes of the 19th century.

Nicholas Leblanc (1742 – 1806)

Nicholas Leblanc
(1742 – 1806)

Due to his early death of his father, Nicolas Leblanc grew up with Dr. Bien, who was a close friend to the family and inspired the young boy to increase his interest in medicine. He enrolled at the École de Chirurgie in Paris in order to study medicine and graduated with a master’s degree in surgery. He opened a private medical practice right after and founded a family. Unfortunately, he was not able to provide for his family and became a private physician to the household of the Louis Philip II, Duke of Orléans. [1]

Around 1775, the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize for a process whereby soda ash could be produced from salt and they intended to promote the production of sodium carbonate from inexpensive sodium chloride. Sodium carbonate, or also called soda ash and potassium carbonate (potash) were very important for the glass, textile, soap, and paper industries. However, alkali obtained from wood ashes mostly had to be imported from North America, Scandinavia, and Russia. Soda ash was mostly imported from Spain as well as the Canary Islands. In order to change this, the King of France and the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize of 2400 livres for a method to produce alkali from sea salt.

Nicolas Leblanc managed to produce sodium carbonate from salt in a 2-step process almost two decades after the contest was announced. First, he mixed sodium chloride with concentrated sulfuric acid at temperatures of about 900 °C. As a result, hydrogen chloride gas evolved, leaving solid sodium sulfate. Secondly, Leblanc crushed the sodium sulfate and mixed it with charcoal and limestone and again heated in a furnace.

Leblanc managed to patent his findings and in the very same year, he built the first Leblanc plant for the Duke at Saint-Denis, producing 320 tons of soda per year. Unfortunately however, Nicolas Leblanc was denied his prize money due to the French Revolution. [2]

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture by Professor John Merriman on the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

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