Elements of Chemistry, by Antoine Lavoisier

Chapter V.

Of the Decomposition of Oxygen Gas by Sulphur, Phosphorus, and Charcoal — and of the Formation of Acids in general.

In performing experiments, it is a necessary principle, which ought never to be deviated from, that they be simplified as much as possible, and that every circumstance capable of rendering their results complicated be carefully removed. Wherefore, in the experiments which form the object of this chapter, we have never employed atmospheric air, which is not a simple substance. It is true, that the azotic gas, which forms a part of its mixture, appears to be merely passive during combustion and calcination; but, besides that it retards these operations very considerably, we are not certain but it may even alter their results in some circumstances; for which reason, I have thought it necessary to remove even this possible cause of doubt, by only making use of pure oxygen gas in the following experiments, which show the effects produced by combustion in that gas; and I shall advert to such differences as take place in the results of these, when the oxygen gas, or pure vital air, is mixed, in different proportions, with azotic gas.

Having filled a bell-glass (A. Pl. iv. fig. 3), of between five and six pints measure, with oxygen gas, I removed it from the water trough, where it was filled, into the quicksilver bath, by means of a shallow glass dish slipped underneath, and having dried the mercury, I introduced 61-1/4 grains of Kunkel's phosphorus in two little China cups, like that represented at D, fig. 3. under the glass A; and that I might set fire to each of the portions of phosphorus separately, and to prevent the one from catching fire from the other, one of the dishes was covered with a piece of flat glass. I next raised the quicksilver in the bell-glass up to E F, by sucking out a sufficient portion of the gas by means of the syphon G H I. After this, by means of the crooked iron wire (fig. 16.), made red hot, I set fire to the two portions of phosphorus successively, first burning that portion which was not covered with the piece of glass. The combustion was extremely rapid, attended with a very brilliant flame, and considerable disengagement of light and heat. In consequence of the great heat induced, the gas was at first much dilated, but soon after the mercury returned to its level, and a considerable absorption of gas took place; at the same time, the whole inside of the glass became covered with white light flakes of concrete phosphoric acid.

At the beginning of the experiment, the quantity of oxygen gas, reduced, as above directed, to a common standard, amounted to 162 cubical inches; and, after the combustion was finished, only 23-1/4 cubical inches, likewise reduced to the standard, remained; so that the quantity of oxygen gas absorbed during the combustion was 138-3/4 cubical inches, equal to 69.375 grains.

A part of the phosphorus remained unconsumed in the bottom of the cups, which being washed on purpose to separate the acid, weighed about 16-1/4 grains; so that about 45 grains of phosphorus had been burned: But, as it is hardly possible to avoid an error of one or two grains, I leave the quantity so far qualified. Hence, as nearly 45 grains of phosphorus had, in this experiment, united with 69.375 grains of oxygen, and as no gravitating matter could have escaped through the glass, we have a right to conclude, that the weight of the substance resulting from the combustion in form of white flakes, must equal that of the phosphorus and oxygen employed, which amounts to 114.375 grains. And we shall presently find, that these flakes consisted entirely of a solid or concrete acid. When we reduce these weights to hundredth parts, it will be found, that 100 parts of phosphorus require 154 parts of oxygen for saturation, and that this combination will produce 254 parts of concrete phosphoric acid, in form of white fleecy flakes.

This experiment proves, in the most convincing manner, that, at a certain degree of temperature, oxygen possesses a stronger elective attraction, or affinity, for phosphorus than for caloric; that, in consequence of this, the phosphorus attracts the base of oxygen gas from the caloric, which, being set free, spreads itself over the surrounding bodies. But, though this experiment be so far perfectly conclusive, it is not sufficiently rigorous, as, in the apparatus described, it is impossible to ascertain the weight of the flakes of concrete acid which are formed; we can therefore only determine this by calculating the weights of oxygen and phosphorus employed; but as, in physics, and in chemistry, it is not allowable to suppose what is capable of being ascertained by direct experiment, I thought it necessary to rep at this experiment, as follows, upon a larger scale, and by means of a different apparatus.

I took a large glass baloon (A. Pl. iv. fig. 4.) with an opening three inches diameter, to which was fitted a crystal stopper ground with emery, and pierced with two holes for the tubes yyy, xxx. Before shutting the baloon with its stopper, I introduced the support BC, surmounted by the china cup D, containing 150 grs. of phosphorus; the stopper was then fitted to the opening of the baloon, luted with fat lute, and covered with slips of linen spread with quick-lime and white of eggs: When the lute was perfectly dry, the weight of the whole apparatus was determined to within a grain, or a grain and a half. I next exhausted the baloon, by means of an air pump applied to the tube xxx, and then introduced oxygen gas by means of the tube yyy, having a stop cock adapted to it. This kind of experiment is most readily and most exactly performed by means of the hydro-pneumatic machine described by Mr Meusnier and me in the Memoirs of the Academy for 1782, pag. 466. and explained in the latter part of this work, with several important additions and corrections since made to it by Mr Meusnier. With this instrument we can readily ascertain, in the most exact manner, both the quantity of oxygen gas introduced into the baloon, and the quantity consumed during the course of the experiment.

When all things were properly disposed, I set fire to the phosphorus with a burning glass. The combustion was extremely rapid, accompanied with a bright flame, and much heat; as the operation went on, large quantities of white flakes attached themselves to the inner surface of the baloon, so that at last it was rendered quite opake. The quantity of these flakes at last became so abundant, that, although fresh oxygen gas was continually supplied, which ought to have supported the combustion, yet the phosphorus was soon extinguished. Having allowed the apparatus to cool completely, I first ascertained the quantity of oxygen gas employed, and weighed the baloon accurately, before it was opened. I next washed, dried, and weighed the small quantity of phosphorus remaining in the cup, on purpose to determine the whole quantity of phosphorus consumed in the experiment; this residuum of the phosphorus was of a yellow ochrey colour. It is evident, that by these several precautions, I could easily determine, 1st, the weight of the phosphorus consumed; 2d, the weight of the flakes produced by the combustion; and, 3d, the weight of the oxygen which had combined with the phosphorus. This experiment gave very nearly the same results with the former, as it proved that the phosphorus, during its combustion, had absorbed a little more than one and a half its weight of oxygen; and I learned with more certainty, that the weight of the new substance, produced in the experiment, exactly equalled the sum of the weights of the phosphorus consumed, and oxygen absorbed, which indeed was easily determinable a priori. If the oxygen gas employed be pure, the residuum after combustion is as pure as the gas employed; this proves that nothing escapes from the phosphorus, capable of altering the purity of the oxygen gas, and that the only action of the phosphorus is to separate the oxygen from the caloric, with which it was before united.

I mentioned above, that when any combustible body is burnt in a hollow sphere of ice, or in an apparatus properly constructed upon that principle, the quantity of ice melted during the combustion is an exact measure of the quantity of caloric disengaged. Upon this head, the memoir given by M. de la Place and me, Aº. 1780, p. 355, may be consulted. Having submitted the combustion of phosphorus to this trial, we found that one pound of phosphorus melted a little more than 100 pounds of ice during its combustion.

The combustion of phosphorus succeeds equally well in atmospheric air as in oxygen gas, with this difference, that the combustion is vastly slower, being retarded by the large proportion of azotic gas mixed with the oxygen gas, and that only about one-fifth part of the air employed is absorbed, because as the oxygen gas only is absorbed, the proportion of the azotic gas becomes so great toward the close of the experiment, as to put an end to the combustion.

I have already shown, that phosphorus is changed by combustion into an extremely light, white, flakey matter; and its properties are entirely altered by this transformation: From being insoluble in water, it becomes not only soluble, but so greedy of moisture, as to attract the humidity of the air with astonishing rapidity; by this means it is converted into a liquid, considerably more dense, and of more specific gravity than water. In the state of phosphorus before combustion, it had scarcely any sensible taste, by its union with oxygen it acquires an extremely sharp and sour taste: in a word, from one of the class of combustible bodies, it is changed into an incombustible substance, and becomes one of those bodies called acids.

This property of a combustible substance to be converted into an acid, by the addition of oxygen, we shall presently find belongs to a great number of bodies: Wherefore, strict logic requires that we should adopt a common term for indicating all these operations which produce analogous results; this is the true way to simplify the study of science, as it would be quite impossible to bear all its specifical details in the memory, if they were not classically arranged. For this reason, we shall distinguish this conversion of phosphorus into an acid, by its union with oxygen, and in general every combination of oxygen with a combustible substance, by the term of oxygenation: from which I shall adopt the verb to oxygenate, and of consequence shall say, that in oxygenating phosphorus we convert it into an acid.

Sulphur is likewise a combustible body, or, in other words, it is a body which possesses the power of decomposing oxygen gas, by attracting the oxygen from the caloric with which it was combined. This can very easily be proved, by means of experiments quite similar to those we have given with phosphorus; but it is necessary to premise, that in these operations with sulphur, the same accuracy of result is not to be expected as with phosphorus; because the acid which is formed by the combustion of sulphur is difficultly condensible, and because sulphur burns with more difficulty, and is soluble in the different gasses. But I can safely assert, from my own experiments, that sulphur in burning absorbs oxygen gas; that the resulting acid is considerably heavier than the sulphur burnt; that its weight is equal to the sum of the weights of the sulphur which has been burnt, and of the oxygen absorbed; and, lastly that this acid is weighty, incombustible, and miscible with water in all proportions: The only uncertainty remaining upon this head, is with regard to the proportions of sulphur and of oxygen which enter into the composition of the acid.

Charcoal, which, from all our present knowledge regarding it, must be considered as a simple combustible body, has likewise the property of decomposing oxygen gas, by absorbing its base from the caloric: But the acid resulting from this combustion does not condense in the common temperature; under the pressure of our atmosphere, it remains in the state of gas, and requires a large proportion of water to combine with or be dissolved in. This acid has, however, all the known properties of other acids, though in a weaker degree, and combines, like them, with all the bases which are susceptible of forming neutral salts.

The combustion of charcoal in oxygen gas, may be effected like that of phosphorus in the bell-glass, (A. Pl. IV. fig. 3.) placed over mercury: but, as the heat of red hot iron is not sufficient to set fire to the charcoal, we must add a small morsel of tinder, with a minute particle of phosphorus, in the same manner as directed in the experiment for the combustion of iron. A detailed account of this experiment will be found in the memoirs of the academy for 1781, p. 448. By that experiment it appears, that 28 parts by weight of charcoal require 72 parts of oxygen for saturation, and that the aëriform acid produced is precisely equal in weight to the sum of the weights of the charcoal and oxygen gas employed. This aëriform acid was called fixed or fixable air by the chemists who first discovered it; they did not then know whether it was air resembling that of the atmosphere, or some other elastic fluid, vitiated and corrupted by combustion; but since it is now ascertained to be an acid, formed like all others by the oxygenation of its peculiar base, it is obvious that the name of fixed air is quite ineligible11.

By burning charcoal in the apparatus mentioned p. 60, Mr de la Place and I found that one lib. of charcoal melted 96 libs. 6 oz. of ice; that, during the combustion, 2 libs. 9 oz. 1 gros. 10 grs. of oxygen were absorbed, and that 3 libs. 9 oz. 1 gros. 10 grs. of acid gas were formed. This gas weighs 0.695 parts of a grain for each cubical inch, in the common standard temperature and pressure mentioned above, so that 34,242 cubical inches of acid gas are produced by the combustion of one pound of charcoal.

I might multiply these experiments, and show by a numerous succession of facts, that all acids are formed by the combustion of certain substances; but I am prevented from doing so in place, by the plan which I have laid down, of proceeding only from facts already ascertained, to such as are unknown, and of drawing my examples only from circumstances already explained. In the mean time, however, the three examples above cited may suffice for giving a clear and accurate conception of the manner in which acids are formed. By these it may be clearly seen, that oxygen is an element common to them all, which constitutes their acidity; and that they differ from each other, according to the nature of the oxygenated or acidified substance. We must therefore, in every acid, carefully distinguish between the acidifiable, base, which Mr de Morveau calls the radical, and the acidifiing principle or oxygen.

11 It may be proper to remark, though here omitted by the author, that, in conformity with the general principles of the new nomenclature, this acid is by Mr Lavoisier and his coleagues called the carbonic acid, and when in the aëriform state carbonic acid gas. E.


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