Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter X.

Of the Combination of Combustible Substances with each other.

As combustible substances in general have a great affinity for oxygen, they ought likewise to attract, or tend to combine with each other; quae sunt eadem uni tertio, sunt eadem inter se; and the axiom is found to be true. Almost all the metals, for instance, are capable of uniting with each other, and forming what are called alloys22, in common language. Most of these, like all combinations, are susceptible of several degrees of saturation; the greater number of these alloys are more brittle than the pure metals of which they are composed, especially when the metals alloyed together are considerably different in their degrees of fusibility. To this difference in fusibility, part of the phenomena attendant upon alloyage are owing, particularly the property of iron, called by workmen hotshort. This kind of iron must be considered as an alloy, or mixture of pure iron, which is almost infusible, with a small portion of some other metal which fuses in a much lower degree of heat. So long as this alloy remains cold, and both metals are in the solid state, the mixture is malleable; but, if heated to a sufficient degree to liquify the more fusible metal, the particles of the liquid metal, which are interposed between the particles of the metal remaining solid, must destroy their continuity, and occasion the alloy to become brittle. The alloys of mercury, with the other metals, have usually been called amalgams, and we see no inconvenience from continuing the use of that term.

Sulphur, phosphorus, and charcoal, readily unite with metals. Combinations of sulphur with metals are usually named pyrites. Their combinations with phosphorus and charcoal are either not yet named, or have received new names only of late; so that we have not scrupled to change them according to our principles. The combinations of metal and sulphur we call sulphurets, those with phosphorus phosphurets, and those formed with charcoal carburets. These denominations are extended to all the combinations into which the above three substances enter, without being previously oxygenated. Thus, the combination of sulphur with potash, or fixed vegetable alkali, is called sulphuret of potash; that which it forms with ammoniac, or volatile alkali, is termed sulphuret of ammoniac.

Hydrogen is likewise capable of combining with many combustible substances. In the state of gas, it dissolves charcoal, sulphur, phosphorus, and several metals; we distinguish these combinations by the terms, carbonated hydrogen gas, sulphurated hydrogen gas, and phosphorated hydrogen gas. The sulphurated hydrogen gas was called hepatic air by former chemists, or foetid air from sulphur, by Mr Scheele. The virtues of several mineral waters, and the foetid smell of animal excrements, chiefly arise from the presence of this gas. The phosphorated hydrogen gas is remarkable for the property, discovered by Mr Gengembre, of taking fire spontaneously upon getting into contact with atmospheric air, or, what is better, with oxygen gas. This gas has a strong flavour, resembling that of putrid fish; and it is very probable that the phosphorescent quality of fish, in the state of putrefaction, arises from the escape of this species of gas. When hydrogen and charcoal are combined together, without the intervention of caloric, to bring the hydrogen into the state of gas, they form oil, which is either fixed or volatile, according to the proportions of hydrogen and charcoal in its composition. The chief difference between fixed or fat oils drawn from vegetables by expression, and volatile or essential oils, is, that the former contains an excess of charcoal, which is separated when the oils are heated above the degree of boiling water; whereas the volatile oils, containing a just proportion of these two constituent ingredients, are not liable to be decomposed by that heat, but, uniting with caloric into the gasseous state, pass over in distillation unchanged.

In the Memoirs of the Academy for 1784, p. 593. I gave an account of my experiments upon the composition of oil and alkohol, by the union of hydrogen with charcoal, and of their combination with oxygen. By these experiments, it appears that fixed oils combine with oxygen during combustion, and are thereby converted into water and carbonic acid. By means of calculation applied to the products of these experiments, we find that fixed oil is composed of 21 parts, by weight, of hydrogen combined with 79 parts of charcoal. Perhaps the solid substances of an oily nature, such as wax, contain a proportion of oxygen, to which they owe their state of solidity. I am at present engaged in a series of experiments, which I hope will throw great light upon this subject.

It is worthy of being examined, whether hydrogen in its concrete state, uncombined with caloric, be susceptible of combination with sulphur, phosphorus, and the metals. There is nothing that we know of, which, a priori, should render these combinations impossible; for combustible bodies being in general susceptible of combination with each other, there is no evident reason for hydrogen being an exception to the rule: However, no direct experiment as yet establishes either the possibility or impossibility of this union. Iron and zinc are the most likely, of all the metals, for entering into combination with hydrogen; but, as these have the property of decomposing water, and as it is very difficult to get entirely free from moisture in chemical experiments, it is hardly possible to determine whether the small portions of hydrogen gas, obtained in certain experiments with these metals, were previously combined with the metal in the state of solid hydrogen, or if they were produced by the decomposition of a minute quantity of water. The more care we take to prevent the presence of water in these experiments, the less is the quantity of hydrogen gas procured; and, when very accurate precautions are employed, even that quantity becomes hardly sensible.

However this inquiry may turn out respecting the power of combustible bodies, as sulphur, phosphorus, and metals, to absorb hydrogen, we are certain that they only absorb a very small portion; and that this combination, instead of being essential to their constitution, can only be considered as a foreign substance, which contaminates their purity. It is the province of the advocates23 for this system to prove, by decisive experiments, the real existence of this combined hydrogen, which they have hitherto only done by conjectures founded upon suppositions.

22 This term alloy, which we have from the language of the arts, serves exceedingly well for distinguishing all the combinations or intimate unions of metals with each other, and is adopted in our new nomenclature for that purpose. — A.

23 By these are meant the supporters of the phlogistic theory, who at present consider hydrogen, or the base of inflammable air, as the phlogiston of the celebrated Stahl. — E.


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