Three Hundred years ago even the most learned of scientists had some strange ideas. Not the least of them were concerned with the chemical change we as burning. They believed (to put it simply) that a mysterious substance called phlogiston was mixed with wood, coal, paper and so on – in fact all substances which can be burned. If a fuel is weighed before burning and the ash left after burning is appears to have become lighter during the process. Early scientists thought that the phlogiston had disappeared during the burning, leaving only ashes. (It is now known that a fuel appears to become lighter only when some of the products of burning escape as gases. The total weight of ash and gases is always greater than the weight of the original fuel.)

It was, however, becoming apparent that the “phlogiston theory” of burning did not provide a really adequate explanation of facts. The credit for its final overthrow can be given to the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743 – 1794). Some years beforehand, Scheele and Priestley had discovered oxygen gas, though they had not explained what is was or what functions it performed. Antoine Lavoisier, in a series of important experiments, showed that air is made up mainly of oxygen and nitrogen gases and that oxygen plays a vital part in the burning process.

The most famous of Antoine Lavoisier’s experiments involved heating mercury (the silvery liquid used in thermometers). The chemist put four ounces of mercury into a retort. A tube from the retort was passed to an airtight jar placed in a trough of mercury to seal it off. The retort was heated by a small furnace, and soon Antoine Lavoisier noted that small red scales were beginning to form on the surface of the mercury in the retort. This was a sign that the chemical changes of combustion (burning) were taking place. Some of the mercury was combining with the oxygen to produce mercuric oxide (the red scales)

Lavoisiers apparatus for the famous experiment in which he showed the importance of oxygen in the burning process

After twelve days it was found that no more scales were being formed. The burning process was complete. About a fifth of the air in the retort had been used up, though only a little of the mercury had disappeared. Antoine Lavoisier realised that the used up gas (oxygen) had combined with the mercury. The gas which was left (now called nitrogen) did not combine and remained unaltered throughout.

The second part of Antoine Lavoisier’s experiment confirmed his ideas on the part played by oxygen in burning. He removed the red scales from the mercury and placed them carefully in another retort. He then heated them (to a rather higher temperature than in the first part of the experiment). The result was that the mercury and oxygen in the scales (mercuric oxide) separated out once more. Measuring the weights of mercury and oxygen Antoine Lavoisier found that they were exactly the same as had been “lost” before. By a happy accident the chemist had used a substance (mercury) where this chemical change could be reversed.

The conclusions reached by Antoine Lavoisier as a result of these experiments were, first, that oxygen makes up about a fifth of the air, secondly that it plays a vital part in the burning process, actually combining with the substance being burnt, and thirdly that the rest of the air (nitrogen) does not act in this way

Though Antoine Lavoisier’s discoveries about burning were his greatest achievement, they were by no means the only ones. The scientists went on to point out that breathing is very like burning, and to make an early list of chemical elements

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