10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

The 10 greatest discoveries in chemistry has been created through the great work of some amazing scientists who have both changed the worlds they lived in and the one future generations will inhabit. You may disagree that this should be the top ten, but we’re sure you will agree that all the discoveries should be classified as great.

1. Oxygen

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

John Priestly and the oxygen symbol

Oxygen has always been around humans so this was a significant discovery to identify it. Carrying the chemical symbol O and atomic number 8, it forms part of the chalcogens in the periodic table.

We know it to be a hugely reactive element and powerful oxidizing agent which easily creates compounds with most elements. The universe is full Oxygen which is calculated to be the third in quantity of mass after Hydrogen and Helium.

The discovery of Oxygen has a mixed history with Joseph Priestly credited with identifying it in 1774 and Antoine Lavoiser discovering the element that makes it. There is controversial information beyond this, as a Swedish scientist by the name of Carl Wilhelm Scheele made the discovery that Priestly made in 1772 but failed to officially publish his findings until 1777.

Priestly experimented to establish the role of oxygen in combustion and respiration and conducted experiments dissolving fixed air in water. Through this he created carbonated water, which was called “dephlogisticated air.”

2. Periodic Table of the Elements

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Dmitri Mendeleev and the Periodic Table of the Elements

A table which organises chemical elements by their electronic make up, their atomic number and recurring chemical properties is known as the Periodic Table of the Elements. Within the table, the elements are placed in order of increasing atomic magnitude which is shown with the chemical symbol in each square.

The table has been standardised for usage with 18 columns and 7 rows with an additional double row of elements below those. The table is separated into 4 different blocks labelled S, P, D and F blocks.

The different parts of the table are as follows:

  • Rows are called Periods
  • Columns are called Groups
  • Some columns have names such as Noble Gases or Halogens

Because the Periodic table holds recurring trends, it can be used to establish relationships between the properties of the elements and predict the properties of new elements that have yet to be discovered. The periodic table delivers a tool for analysing chemical behaviour and is therefore essential to our continued research.

A Russian chemist called Dmitri Mendeleev was the first person to publish the table based on his and John Newlands and Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisiers findings. Mendeleev produced a two-part paper called the Principles of Chemistry between 1968 and 1870, which contained a table presenting chemical properties.

3. Electrons

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

J.J. Thompson and Electon graphic

Electrons are negatively charged sub atomic particles and belong to the first generation of lepton particle family. Generally they are considered to be elementary as they have no known components or sub structures.

The mass of an electron is about 1/1836 the size of a proton.

We invented electricity and used it for many years before understanding that it was made of electrons. A scientist with the name of J.J. Thompson lectured at Cambridge University in 1897 and he decided to test what was creating the waves to move within a cathode tube. He found that the cathode rays bent to one side and established that electric currents were made up of moving electrons.

4. LSD

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Albert Hofman and the structure of LSD

LSD is actually called Lysergic acid Diethylamide and is well known through its use as a non-addictive hallucinogen during the 1960s. However, it wasn’t the psychological effects that LSD was invented for but it was discovered through a search for alkaloid derivatives.

A research team from Switzerland had been looking at a fungus called ergot that was found in some bread and had known medicinal uses. Ergot could kill in larger doses in its natural form, but if administered in controlled doses it could be used to restrict blood flow and was favoured for use during childbirth.

The challenge for the team led by Albert Hofman in 1938 was to separate the deadly elements from the useful in Ergot. Five years after the time that it was first synthesised, Hoffman started to work on it again and during a lab session he had to retire feeling unwell. He later described his experience in a report that detailed his dreamlike experience with incredibly vivid colours.

5. Atomic Theory

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

John Dalton and his book outlining atomic theory

Atomic theory applies to both Chemistry and Physics as the principles behind the nature of matter, which states that matter is made up of units known as atoms. It was in the early 19 century that scientist began to explore the theory that had existed since the times of Ancient Greece where the name atom comes from – ‘atomos’ meaning uncut-able.

John Dalton discovered how to link atoms together to objects that had measurable qualities like, volume of gas or mineral mass, in 1808. His findings stated that elements were made up of small particles called atoms and that pure elements could only be made of atoms with identical mass. He believed that all life was made up of atoms.

John Dalton built many of his ideas on where the Greeks had got to and produced a paper called A New System of Chemical Philosophy, which held a theory containing 4 areas.

  1. Atoms were made up of chemical elements
  2. Atoms in an element all have the same mass
  3. Atoms in different elements had varying weight
  4. Atoms only congregate in small ratios of whole numbers in order to form compounds

The Greeks had many of these ideas and Dalton built on them. His most significant contribution to atomic theory was a way to calculate an elements atomic weight. It was in 1805, Dalton published a report, which included the atomic weights for more than 20 elements.

6. Smallpox Vaccine

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Edward Jenner and a modern smallpox vaccine

The Smallpox vaccine is said to have been invented by somebody who has saved more lives than any other person in history. Smallpox epidemics had been sweeping across Europe for a couple of hundred years and ending with death for 35% of people who became infected.

Edward Jenner was a Doctor practicing in Gloucester, UK, in the late 18th century. He had been challenged by the treatment of those who had begun to contract smallpox and focused on trying to work out a remedy. Because the disease new no social boundaries it drove greater urgency for a cure. Young or old, poor or wealthy could easily contact it.

In 1798, Jenner worked out that milkmaids who had already suffered from cowpox did not contract smallpox and undertook some trials on a young male who was destined to die. Using a small amount of fluid from the blisters of those suffering from cowpox, he placed it in the sores of his patient. A few days passed and after the boy becoming sicker he saw him improve. He monitored progress and then gave further treatments that ultimately fully cured the patient.

News spread across Europe of Jenner’s findings and began to get a grip on the dreadful disease across the continent. The treatment was developed into the first vaccine for a disease and in 1970s, the world health organisation announced that the disease had been eradicated.

7. Radioactivity

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Marie Curie and the radioactivity symbol

Marie Curie and her husband Pierre were Polish scientists in the 1890s and early 1900s. They worked together examining uranium ore, establishing how to remove the uranium to study it independently. Through this they established they were able to separate the radioactive materials within and found that these were more active than the straight uranium.

Marie and Pierre built their finding on previous work by Antoine Henri Becquerel who established a range of experiments that exposed uranium based crystal to sunlight. He initially thought that the crystal he had exposed to sunlight went on to mark a plate, but later put the crystal on a plate locked away in a cupboard and it marked a fresh plate in the same way. It was actually radioactivity causing the marking but it was the Curies who named it after spontaneous emission experiments.

8. Pasteurization

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Louis Pasteur and a modern fruit juice treatment unit

In 1864 Louis Pasteur discovered that by heating wine and beer it was possible to stem its decay and turning sour. He discovered that the heating process killed the pathogenic microbes and lessoned the microbial numbers. This killed most of the bacteria that caused the deterioration of the product.

It was Napoleon III and his love of wine that led to the discovery. In 1863 he asked Louis Pasteur to study his wine to discover why it was going off. By heating the wine between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit he killed the microbes and left the wine with a longer life.

The process has been adopted worldwide which has led to us having access to drink and foodstuff for much longer periods. The process reduces the number of pathogens and allows the product to maintain its positive attributes which sterilising would kill off.

Pasteurization has been named one of the most significant discoveries because it has saved many lives through the prevention of disease spreading through food and drink.

9. Penicillin

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Alexander Fleming and some of the public awareness created

Penicillin antibiotics were among the first treatment to fight bacterial diseases in humans. Over usage of the drug has led to bacteria strengthening to resist it which now posses a significant threat to our future dealing with such diseases.

This discovery was made when a Scottish Doctor called Alexander Fleming was sorting through some Petri dishes the laboratory. He placed the contaminated dishes onto a tray that had been filled with Lysol.

Fleming was chatting to his assistant about all the work he had been doing when he went through his dishes to demonstrate and discovered some of them hadn’t been covered with the Lysol. He picked up a dish that had contained staphylococcus bacteria growing in it and noticed that it had mould on which had killed it.

Fleming recognised he was on the verge of discovering something significant and spent the next few weeks investigating further. He looked at what it was in the mould that would have killed the bacteria and found it to be a non-toxic strain in his lab that may have made its way from an adjacent mould laboratory. The conclusion was published that Penicillin mould killed bacteria, in a paper in 1928, but the findings weren’t initially widely accepted.

10. Plastics

10 Greatest Discoveries In Chemistry

Alexander Parkes and a modern plastic bottle

A material that is causing significant environmental issue today, has non the less helped advance humanity since it was discovered. Plastic is made from a range of synthetic or semi synthetic organics that can be shaped into solid objects. Most commonly today, plastic is derived from oil but lots are partially natural.

Plastics were being researched in the 19th century and Parkesine is said to be the first kind. This was patented in Birmingham in 1856 by a man called Alexander Parkes. In 1862, he took it to exhibit at the World Fair in London. This discovery was produced from cellulose and treated with nitric acid. This product could be shaped and set through heating and with pigment added it could have its colour changed.

Bakelite was produced first in the early 1900s and was produced by a Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. This was the first fully synthetic thermoset.

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