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January 16th marks the death of Nicolas Leblanc. Leblanc was a French physician and amateur chemist who developed a method to convert common salt (sodium chloride) into soda ash (sodium carbonate).

Soda ash was an important industrial chemical in Renaissance Europe. It was used in the production of several products, including soap, paper and glass. The primary source of soda ash was from wood pulp. In the last half of the 18th Century, wood pulp was in short supply. Soda ash was imported from Spain, Russia and the Americas at high cost. In 1783, King Louis XVI of France offered a sizable cash reward for anyone who could produce soda ash from salt.

Leblanc discovered that if he added salt to sulfuric acid and baked the mixture with charcoal and limestone at high temperatures, soda ash crystals would form. The Leblanc process was quickly patented, giving Leblanc and partners the sole right to produce soda ash for 15 years. Leblanc built a soda ash plant and began what he hoped would be a lucrative business.

Shortly after he began operations, the French Revolution began. The new government ordered Leblanc to stop all production, closed his factory and ordered him off the premises. The government also refused to pay the prize money for the original process. Leblanc suddenly found himself nearly bankrupt. He continued to try to get his plant back, but could not until Napoleon's government allowed him to reopen the plant. By then, he did not have the money to begin operations and spent most of his time trying to collect past due funds from the government. His continued failures eventually got the best of him and he committed suicide.

You can also use soda ash for the Water into Wine chemistry demonstration or you can find out what else occurred on this day in science history.


January 20, 2010 at 8:25 am
(1) Leslie says:

my name is Leslie and i am a young boy whom is a massive fan of Anne !!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the candy rock chrystal experiment is the best by far. But i also admire you taking chances and making a cabbage ph indicator. Thank you for being you ! xxx

January 18, 2011 at 12:31 pm
(2) Rock Salt says:

Very interesting article. I must confess that running a website on rock salt and didn’t know that. If you don’t mind we will include a link to this article in the near future.

Thanks again.

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