We have just seen that all the oxyds and acids from the animal and vegetable kingdoms are formed by means of a small number of simple elements, or at least of such as have not hitherto been susceptible of decomposition, by means of combination with oxygen; these are azote, sulphur, phosphorus, charcoal, hydrogen, and the muriatic radical30. We may justly admire the simplicity of the means employed by nature to multiply qualities and forms, whether by combining three or four acidifiable bases in different proportions, or by altering the dose of oxygen employed for oxydating or acidifying them. We shall find the means no less simple and diversified, and as abundantly productive of forms and qualities, in the order of bodies we are now about to treat of.
Acidifiable substances, by combining with oxygen, and their consequent conversion into acids, acquire great susceptibility of farther combination; they become capable of uniting with earthy and metallic bodies, by which means neutral salts are formed. Acids may therefore be considered as true salifying principles, and the substances with which they unite to form neutral salts may be called salifiable bases: The nature of the union which these two principles form with each other is meant as the subject of the present chapter.
This view of the acids prevents me from considering them as salts, though they are possessed of many of the principal properties of saline bodies, as solubility in water, &c. I have already observed that they are the result of a first order of combination, being composed of two simple elements, or at least of elements which act as if they were simple, and we may therefore rank them, to use the language of Stahl, in the order of mixts. The neutral salts, on the contrary, are of a secondary order of combination, being formed by the union of two mixts with each other, and may therefore be termed compounds. Hence I shall not arrange the alkalies31 or earths in the class of salts, to which I allot only such as are composed of an oxygenated substance united to a base.
I have already enlarged sufficiently upon the formation of acids in the preceding chapter, and shall not add any thing farther upon that subject; but having as yet given no account of the salifiable bases which are capable of uniting with them to form neutral salts, I mean, in this chapter, to give an account of the nature and origin of each of these bases. These are potash, soda, ammoniac, lime, magnesia, barytes, argill32, and all the metallic bodies.
We have already shown, that, when a vegetable substance is submitted to the action of fire in distilling vessels, its component elements, oxygen, hydrogen, and charcoal, which formed a threefold combination in a state of equilibrium, unite, two and two, in obedience to affinities which act conformable to the degree of heat employed. Thus, at the first application of the fire, whenever the heat produced exceeds the temperature of boiling water, part of the oxygen and hydrogen unite to form water; soon after the rest of the hydrogen, and part of the charcoal, combine into oil; and, lastly, when the fire is pushed to the red heat, the oil and water, which had been formed in the early part of the process, become again decomposed, the oxygen and charcoal unite to form carbonic acid, a large quantity of hydrogen gas is set free, and nothing but charcoal remains in the retort.
A great part of these phenomena occur during the combustion of vegetables in the open air; but, in this case, the presence of the air introduces three new substances, the oxygen and azote of the air and caloric, of which two at least produce considerable changes in the results of the operation. In proportion as the hydrogen of the vegetable, or that which results from the decomposition of the water, is forced out in the form of hydrogen gas by the progress of the fire, it is set on fire immediately upon getting in contact with the air, water is again formed, and the greater part of the caloric of the two gasses becoming free produces flame. When all the hydrogen gas is driven out, burnt, and again reduced to water, the remaining charcoal continues to burn, but without flame; it is formed into carbonic acid, which carries off a portion of caloric sufficient to give it the gasseous form; the rest of the caloric, from the oxygen of the air, being set free, produces the heat and light observed during the combustion of charcoal. The whole vegetable is thus reduced into water and carbonic acid, and nothing remains but a small portion of gray earthy matter called ashes, being the only really fixed principles which enter into the constitution of vegetables.
The earth, or rather ashes, which seldom exceeds a twentieth part of the weight of the vegetable, contains a substance of a particular nature, known under the name of fixed vegetable alkali, or potash. To obtain it, water is poured upon the ashes, which dissolves the potash, and leaves the ashes which are insoluble; by afterwards evaporating the water, we obtain the potash in a white concrete form: It is very fixed even in a very high degree of heat. I do not mean here to describe the art of preparing potash, or the method of procuring it in a state of purity, but have entered upon the above detail that I might not use any word not previously explained.
The potash obtained by this process is always less or more saturated with carbonic acid, which is easily accounted for: As the potash does not form, or at least is not set free, but in proportion as the charcoal of the vegetable is converted into carbonic acid by the addition of oxygen, either from the air or the water, it follows, that each particle of potash, at the instant of its formation, or at least of its liberation, is in contact with a particle of carbonic acid, and, as there is a considerable affinity between these two substances, they naturally combine together. Although the carbonic acid has less affinity with potash than any other acid, yet it is difficult to separate the last portions from it. The most usual method of accomplishing this is to dissolve the potash in water; to this solution add two or three times its weight of quick-lime, then filtrate the liquor and evaporate it in close vessels; the saline substance left by the evaporation is potash almost entirely deprived of carbonic acid. In this state it is soluble in an equal weight of water, and even attracts the moisture of the air with great avidity; by this property it furnishes us with an excellent means of rendering air or gas dry by exposing them to its action. In this state it is soluble in alkohol, though not when combined with carbonic acid; and Mr Berthollet employs this property as a method of procuring potash in the state of perfect purity.
All vegetables yield less or more of potash in consequence of combustion, but it is furnished in various degrees of purity by different vegetables; usually, indeed, from all of them it is mixed with different salts from which it is easily separable. We can hardly entertain a doubt that the ashes, or earth which is left by vegetables in combustion, pre-existed in them before they were burnt, forming what may be called the skeleton, or osseous part of the vegetable. But it is quite otherwise with potash; this substance has never yet been procured from vegetables but by means of processes or intermedia capable of furnishing oxygen and azote, such as combustion, or by means of nitric acid; so that it is not yet demonstrated that potash may not be a produce from these operations. I have begun a series of experiments upon this object, and hope soon to be able to give an account of their results.
Soda, like potash, is an alkali procured by lixiviation from the ashes of burnt plants, but only from those which grow upon the sea-side, and especially from the herb kali, whence is derived the name alkali, given to this substance by the Arabians. It has some properties in common with potash, and others which are entirely different: In general, these two substances have peculiar characters in their saline combinations which are proper to each, and consequently distinguish them from each other; thus soda, which, as obtained from marine plants, is usually entirely saturated with carbonic acid, does not attract the humidity of the atmosphere like potash, but, on the contrary, desiccates, its cristals effloresce, and are converted into a white powder having all the properties of soda, which it really is, having only lost its water of cristallization.
Hitherto we are not better acquainted with the constituent elements of soda than with those of potash, being equally uncertain whether it previously existed ready formed in the vegetable or is a combination of elements effected by combustion. Analogy leads us to suspect that azote is a constituent element of all the alkalies, as is the case with ammoniac; but we have only slight presumptions, unconfirmed by any decisive experiments, respecting the composition of potash and soda.
We have, however, very accurate knowledge of the composition of ammoniac, or volatile alkali, as it is called by the old chemists. Mr Berthollet, in the Memoirs of the Academy for 1784, p. 316. has proved by analysis, that 1000 parts of this substance consist of about 807 parts of azote combined with 193 parts of hydrogen.
Ammoniac is chiefly procurable from animal substances by distillation, during which process the azote and hydrogen necessary to its formation unite in proper proportions; it is not, however, procured pure by this process, being mixed with oil and water, and mostly saturated with carbonic acid. To separate these substances it is first combined with an acid, the muriatic for instance, and then disengaged from that combination by the addition of lime or potash. When ammoniac is thus produced in its greatest degree of purity it can only exist under the gasseous form, at least in the usual temperature of the atmosphere, it has an excessively penetrating smell, is absorbed in large quantities by water, especially if cold and assisted by compression. Water thus saturated with ammoniac has usually been termed volatile alkaline fluor; we shall call it either simply ammoniac, or liquid ammoniac, and ammoniacal gas when it exists in the aëriform state.
The composition of these four earths is totally unknown, and, until by new discoveries their constituent elements are ascertained, we are certainly authorised to consider them as simple bodies. Art has no share in the production of these earths, as they are all procured ready formed from nature; but, as they have all, especially the three first, great tendency to combination, they are never found pure. Lime is usually saturated with carbonic acid in the state of chalk, calcarious spars, most of the marbles, &c.; sometimes with sulphuric acid, as in gypsum and plaster stones; at other times with fluoric acid forming vitreous or fluor spars; and, lastly, it is found in the waters of the sea, and of saline springs, combined with muriatic acid. Of all the salifiable bases it is the most universally spread through nature.
Magnesia is found in mineral waters, for the most part combined with sulphuric acid; it is likewise abundant in sea-water, united with muriatic acid; and it exists in a great number of stones of different kinds.
Barytes is much less common than the three preceding earths; it is found in the mineral kingdom, combined with sulphuric acid, forming heavy spars, and sometimes, though rarely, united to carbonic acid.
Argill, or the base of alum, having less tendency to combination than the other earths, is often found in the state of argill, uncombined with any acid. It is chiefly procurable from clays, of which, properly speaking, it is the base, or chief ingredient.
The metals, except gold, and sometimes silver, are rarely found in the mineral kingdom in their metallic state, being usually less or more saturated with oxygen, or combined with sulphur, arsenic, sulphuric acid, muriatic acid, carbonic acid, or phosphoric acid. Metallurgy, or the docimastic art, teaches the means of separating them from these foreign matters; and for this purpose we refer to such chemical books as treat upon these operations.
We are probably only acquainted as yet with a part of the metallic substances existing in nature, as all those which have a stronger affinity to oxygen, than charcoal possesses, are incapable of being reduced to the metallic state, and, consequently, being only presented to our observation under the form of oxyds, are confounded with earths. It is extremely probable that barytes, which we have just now arranged with earths, is in this situation; for in many experiments it exhibits properties nearly approaching to those of metallic bodies. It is even possible that all the substances we call earths may be only metallic oxyds, irreducible by any hitherto known process.
Those metallic bodies we are at present acquainted with, and which we can reduce to the metallic or reguline state, are the following seventeen:
I only mean to consider these as salifiable bases, without entering at all upon the consideration of their properties in the arts, and for the uses of society. In these points of view each metal would require a complete treatise, which would lead me far beyond the bounds I have prescribed for this work.
30 I have not ventured to omit this element, as here enumerated with the other principles of animal and vegetable substances, though it is not at all taken notice of in the preceding chapters as entering into the composition of these bodies. — E.
31 Perhaps my thus rejecting the alkalies from the class of salts may be considered as a capital defect in the method I have adopted, and I am ready to admit the charge; but this inconvenience is compensated by so many advantages, that I could not think it of sufficient consequence to make me alter my plan. — A.
32 Called Alumine by Mr Lavoisier; but as Argill has been in a manner naturalized to the language for this substance by Mr Kirwan, I have ventured to use it in preference. — E.
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