Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter IV.

Of Mechanical Operations for Division of Bodies.

Sect. I.

Of Trituration, Levigation, and Pulverization.

These are, properly speaking, only preliminary mechanical operations for dividing and separating the particles of bodies, and reducing them into very fine powder. These operations can never reduce substances into their primary, or elementary and ultimate particles; they do not even destroy the aggregation of bodies; for every particle, after the most accurate trituration, forms a small whole, resembling the original mass from which it was divided. The real chemical operations, on the contrary, such as solution, destroy the aggregation of bodies, and separate their constituent and integrant particles from each other.

Brittle substances are reduced to powder by means of pestles and mortars. These are of brass or iron, Pl. I. Fig. 1.; of marble or granite, Fig. 2.; of lignum vitae, Fig. 3.; of glass, Fig. 4.; of agate, Fig. 5.; or of porcellain, Fig. 6. The pestles for each of these are represented in the plate, immediately below the mortars to which they respectively belong, and are made of hammered iron or brass, of wood, glass, porcellain, marble, granite, or agate, according to the nature of the substances they are intended to triturate. In every laboratory, it is requisite to have an assortment of these utensils, of various sizes and kinds: Those of porcellain and glass can only be used for rubbing substances to powder, by a dexterous use of the pestle round the sides of the mortar, as it would be easily broken by reiterated blows of the pestle.

The bottom of mortars ought to be in the form of a hollow sphere, and their sides should have such a degree of inclination as to make the substances they contain fall back to the bottom when the pestle is lifted, but not so perpendicular as to collect them too much together, otherwise too large a quantity would get below the pestle, and prevent its operation. For this reason, likewise, too large a quantity of the substance to be powdered ought not to be put into the mortar at one time; and we must from time to time get rid of the particles already reduced to powder, by means of sieves to be afterwards described.

The most usual method of levigation is by means of a flat table ABCD, Pl. 1. Fig. 7. of porphyry, or other stone of similar hardness, upon which the substance to be reduced to powder is spread, and is then bruised and rubbed by a muller M, of the same hard materials, the bottom of which is made a small portion of a large sphere; and, as the muller tends continually to drive the substances towards the sides of the table, a thin flexible knife, or spatula of iron, horn, wood, or ivory, is used for bringing them back to the middle of the stone.

In large works, this operation is performed by means of large rollers of hard stone, which turn upon each other, either horizontally, in the way of corn-mills, or by one vertical roller turning upon a flat stone. In the above operations, it is often requisite to moisten the substances a little, to prevent the fine powder from flying off.

There are many bodies which cannot be reduced to powder by any of the foregoing methods; such are fibrous substances, as woods; such as are tough and elastic, as the horns of animals, elastic gum, &c. and the malleable metals which flatten under the pestle, instead of being reduced to powder. For reducing the woods to powder, rasps, as Pl. I. Fig. 8. are employed; files of a finer kind are used for horn, and still finer, Pl. 1. Fig. 9. and 10. for metals.

Some of the metals, though not brittle enough to powder under the pestle, are too soft to be filed, as they clog the file, and prevent its operation. Zinc is one of these, but it may be powdered when hot in a heated iron mortar, or it may be rendered brittle, by alloying it with a small quantity of mercury. One or other of these methods is used by fire-work makers for producing a blue flame by means of zinc. Metals may be reduced into grains, by pouring them when melted into water, which serves very well when they are not wanted in fine powder.

Fruits, potatoes, &c. of a pulpy and fibrous nature may be reduced to pulp by means of the grater, Pl. 1. Fig. 11.

The choice of the different substances of which these instruments are made is a matter of importance; brass or copper are unfit for operations upon substances to be used as food or in pharmacy; and marble or metallic instruments must not be used for acid substances; hence mortars of very hard wood, and those of porcelain, granite, or glass, are of great utility in many operations.

Plate I
Plate I (continued)

Sect. II.

Of Sifting and Washing Powdered Substances.

None of the mechanical operations employed for reducing bodies to powder is capable of producing it of an equal degree of fineness throughout; the powder obtained by the longest and most accurate trituration being still an assemblage of particles of various sizes. The coarser of these are removed, so as only to leave the finer and more homogeneous particles by means of sieves, Pl. I. Fig. 12. 13. 14. 15. of different finenesses, adapted to the particular purposes they are intended for; all the powdered matter which is larger than the intestices of the sieve remains behind, and is again submitted to the pestle, while the finer pass through. The sieve Fig. 12. is made of hair-cloth, or of silk gauze; and the one represented Fig. 13. is of parchment pierced with round holes of a proper size; this latter is employed in the manufacture of gun-powder. When very subtile or valuable materials are to be sifted, which are easily dispersed, or when the finer parts of the powder may be hurtful, a compound sieve, Fig. 15. is made use of, which consists of the sieve ABCD, with a lid EF, and receiver GH; these three parts are represented as joined together for use, Fig. 14.

There is a method of procuring powders of an uniform fineness, considerably more accurate than the sieve; but it can only be used with such substances as are not acted upon by water. The powdered substance is mixed and agitated with water, or other convenient fluid; the liquor is allowed to settle for a few moments, and is then decanted off; the coarsest powder remains at the bottom of the vessel, and the finer passes over with the liquid. By repeated decantations in this manner, various sediments are obtained of different degrees of fineness; the last sediment, or that which remains longed suspended in the liquor, being the finest. This process may likewise be used with advantage for separating substances of different degrees of specific gravity, though of the same fineness; this last is chiefly employed in mining, for separating the heavier metallic ores from the lighter earthy matters with which they are mixed.

In chemical laboratories, pans and jugs of glass or earthen ware are employed for this operation; sometimes, for decanting the liquor without disturbing the sediment, the glass syphon ABCHI, Pl. II. Fig. 11. is used, which may be supported by means of the perforated board DE, at the proper depth in the vessel FG, to draw off all the liquor required into the receiver LM. The principles and application of this useful instrument are so well known as to need no explanation.

Sect. III.

Of Filtration.

A filtre is a species of very fine sieve, which is permeable to the particles of fluids, but through which the particles of the finest powdered solids are incapable of passing; hence its use in separating fine powders from suspension in fluids. In pharmacy, very close and fine woollen cloths are chiefly used for this operation; these are commonly formed in a conical shape, Pl. II. Fig. 2. which has the advantage of uniting all the liquor which drains through into a point A, where it may be readily collected in a narrow mouthed vessel. In large pharmaceutical laboratories, this filtring bag is streached upon a wooden stand, Pl. II. Fig. 1.

For the purposes of chemistry, as it is requisite to have the filtres perfectly clean, unsized paper is substituted instead of cloth or flannel; through this substance, no solid body, however finely it be powdered, can penetrate, and fluids percolate through it with the greatest readiness. As paper breaks easily when wet, various methods of supporting it are used according to circumstances. When a large quantity of fluid is to be filtrated, the paper is supported by the frame of wood, Pl. II. Fig. 3. ABCD, having a piece of coarse cloth stretched over it, by means of iron-hooks. This cloth must be well cleaned each time it is used, or even new cloth must be employed, if there is reason to suspect its being impregnated with any thing which can injure the subsequent operations. In ordinary operations, where moderate quantities of fluid are to be filtrated, different kinds of glass funnels are used for supporting the paper, as represented Pl. II. Fig. 5. 6. and 7. When several filtrations must be carried on at once, the board or shelf AB, Fig. 9. supported upon stands C and D, and pierced with round holes, is very convenient for containing the funnels.

Some liquors are so thick and clammy, as not to be able to penetrate through paper without some previous preparation, such as clarification by means of white of eggs, which being mixed with the liquor, coagulates when brought to boil, and, entangling the greater part of the impurities of the liquor, rises with them to the surface in the state of scum. Spiritous liquors may be clarified in the same manner by means of isinglass dissolved in water, which coagulates by the action of the alkohol without the assistance of heat.

As most of the acids are produced by distillation, and are consequently clear, we have rarely any occasion to filtrate them; but if, at any time, concentrated acids require this operation, it is impossible to employ paper, which would be corroded and destroyed by the acid. For this purpose, pounded glass, or rather quartz or rock-cristal, broke in pieces and grossly powdered, answers very well; a few of the larger pieces are put in the neck of the funnel; these are covered with the smaller pieces, the finer powder is placed over all, and the acid is poured on at top. For the ordinary purposes of society, river-water is frequently filtrated by means of clean washed sand, to separate its impurities.

Sect. IV.

Of Decantation.

This operation is often substituted instead of filtration for separating solid particles which are diffused through liquors. These are allowed to settle in conical vessels, ABCDE, Pl. II. Fig. 10. the diffused matters gradually subside, and the clear fluid is gently poured off. If the sediment be extremely light, and apt to mix again with the fluid by the slightest motion, the syphon, Fig. 11. is used, instead of decantation, for drawing off the clear fluid.

In experiments, where the weight of the precipitate must be rigorously ascertained, decantation is preferable to filtration, providing the precipitate be several times washed in a considerable proportion of water. The weight of the precipitate may indeed be ascertained, by carefully weighing the filtre before and after the operation; but, when the quantity of precipitate is small, the different proportions of moisture retained by the paper, in a greater or lesser degree of exsiccation, may prove a material source of error, which ought carefully to be guarded against.


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