Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter XII.

Of the Decomposition of Vegetable and Animal Substances by the Action of Fire.

Before we can thoroughly comprehend what takes place during the decomposition of vegetable substances by fire, we must take into consideration the nature of the elements which enter into their composition, and the different affinities which the particles of these elements exert upon each other, and the affinity which caloric possesses with them. The true constituent elements of vegetables are hydrogen, oxygen, and charcoal: These are common to all vegetables, and no vegetable can exist without them: Such other substances as exist in particular vegetables are only essential to the composition of those in which they are found, and do not belong to vegetables in general.

Of these elements, hydrogen and oxygen have a strong tendency to unite with caloric, and be converted into gas, whilst charcoal is a fixed element, having but little affinity with caloric. On the other hand, oxygen, which, in the usual temperature, tends nearly equally to unite with hydrogen and with charcoal, has a much stronger affinity with charcoal when at the red heat24, and then unites with it to form carbonic acid.

Although we are far from being able to appreciate all these powers of affinity, or to express their proportional energy by numbers, we are certain, that, however variable they may be when considered in relation to the quantity of caloric with which they are combined, they are all nearly in equilibrium in the usual temperature of the atmosphere; hence vegetables neither contain oil25, water, nor carbonic acid, tho' they contain all the elements of these substances. The hydrogen is neither combined with the oxygen nor with the charcoal, and reciprocally; the particles of these three substances form a triple combination, which remains in equilibrium whilst undisturbed by caloric but a very slight increase of temperature is sufficient to overturn this structure of combination.

If the increased temperature to which the vegetable is exposed does not exceed the heat of boiling water, one part of the hydrogen combines with the oxygen, and forms water, the rest of the hydrogen combines with a part of the charcoal, and forms volatile oil, whilst the remainder of the charcoal, being set free from its combination with the other elements, remains fixed in the bottom of the distilling vessel.

When, on the contrary, we employ a red heat, no water is formed, or, at least, any that may have been produced by the first application of the heat is decomposed, the oxygen having a greater affinity with the charcoal at this degree of heat, combines with it to form carbonic acid, and the hydrogen being left free from combination with the other elements, unites with caloric, and escapes in the state of hydrogen gas. In this high temperature, either no oil is formed, or, if any was produced during the lower temperature at the beginning of the experiment, it is decomposed by the action of the red heat. Thus the decomposition of vegetable matter, under a high temperature, is produced by the action of double and triple affinities; while the charcoal attracts the oxygen, on purpose to form carbonic acid, the caloric attracts the hydrogen, and converts it into hydrogen gas.

The distillation of every species of vegetable substance confirms the truth of this theory, if we can give that name to a simple relation of facts. When sugar is submitted to distillation, so long as we only employ a heat but a little below that of boiling water, it only loses its water of cristallization, it still remains sugar, and retains all its properties; but, immediately upon raising the heat only a little above that degree, it becomes blackened, a part of the charcoal separates from the combination, water slightly acidulated passes over accompanied by a little oil, and the charcoal which remains in the retort is nearly a third part of the original weight of the sugar.

The operation of affinities which take place during the decomposition, by fire, of vegetables which contain azote, such as the cruciferous plants, and of those containing phosphorus, is more complicated; but, as these substances only enter into the composition of vegetables in very small quantities, they only, apparently, produce slight changes upon the products of distillation; the phosphorus seems to combine with the charcoal, and, acquiring fixity from that union, remains behind in the retort, while the azote, combining with a part of the hydrogen, forms ammoniac, or volatile alkali.

Animal substances, being composed nearly of the same elements with cruciferous plants, give the same products in distillation, with this difference, that, as they contain a greater quantity of hydrogen and azote, they produce more oil and more ammoniac. I shall only produce one fact as a proof of the exactness with which this theory explains all the phenomena which occur during the distillation of animal substances, which is the rectification and total decomposition of volatile animal oil, commonly known by the name of Dippel's oil. When these oils are procured by a first distillation in a naked fire they are brown, from containing a little charcoal almost in a free state; but they become quite colourless by rectification. Even in this state the charcoal in their composition has so slight a connection with the other elements as to separate by mere exposure to the air. If we put a quantity of this animal oil, well rectified, and consequently clear, limpid, and transparent, into a bell-glass filled with oxygen gas over mercury, in a short time the gas is much diminished, being absorbed by the oil, the oxygen combining with the hydrogen of the oil forms water, which sinks to the bottom, at the same time the charcoal which was combined with the hydrogen being set free, manifests itself by rendering the oil black. Hence the only way of preserving these oils colourless and transparent, is by keeping them in bottles perfectly full and accurately corked, to hinder the contact of air, which always discolours them.

Successive rectifications of this oil furnish another phenomenon confirming our theory. In each distillation a small quantity of charcoal remains in the retort, and a little water is formed by the union of the oxygen contained in the air of the distilling vessels with the hydrogen of the oil. As this takes place in each successive distillation, if we make use of large vessels and a considerable degree of heat, we at last decompose the whole of the oil, and change it entirely into water and charcoal. When we use small vessels, and especially when we employ a slow fire, or degree of heat little above that of boiling water, the total decomposition of these oils, by repeated distillation, is greatly more tedious, and more difficultly accomplished. I shall give a particular detail to the Academy, in a separate memoir, of all my experiments upon the decomposition of oil; but what I have related above may suffice to give just ideas of the composition of animal and vegetable substances, and of their decomposition by the action of fire.

24 Though this term, red heat, does not indicate any absolutely determinate degree of temperature, I shall use it sometimes to express a temperature considerably above that of boiling water. — A.

25 I must be understood here to speak of vegetables reduced to a perfectly dry state; and, with respect to oil, I do not mean that which is procured by expression either in the cold, or in a temperature not exceeding that of boiling water; I only allude to the empyreumatic oil procured by distillation with a naked fire, in a heat superior to the temperature of boiling water; which is the only oil declared to be produced by the operation of fire. What I have published upon this subject in the Memoirs of the Academy for 1786 may be consulted. — A.


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