Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ludwig Mond Gave Metal Wings

Ludwig Mond (1839-1909) founded Britain's ICI.

Ludwig Mond was another wealth maker who changed chemistry and in so doing, changed the world. Am I giving him too much credit?  Perhaps. Mond discovered nickel tetracarbonyl--an insidious poison--and turned its making into a process for refining ultra pure nickel--mostly Canadian nickel from the Sudbury Basin. Such nickel went into steel to make armor plating for ships. I'm sure that some still sits in the sunken battleship USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.* Hardened steel armor was also the reason the US Treasury had to pull nickel from circulation during World War II, replacing it with less precious silver. link

Mond found (by accident) that nickel combines with four molecules of carbon monoxide to give nickel tetracarbonyl,
Nickel tetracarbonyl is volatile and can be distilled. In a sense, the four carbon monoxides bear a metal atom aloft. To paraphrase Lord Kelvin: Mond gave wings to metals (I used Kelvin's metaphor to describe how fluorine "gave uranium wings" back here).
*Kruppstahl as it turns out. I suspected this after having seen one of the Arizona's turrets still half submerged in warm seawater after nearly 70 years!


  1. Hmmm... Take out the carbon atoms and replace the nickel with something much heavier and you get Osmium Tetroxide - which is a great staining agent for electron microscopy.

    Unfortunately it won't do anything nearly as wonderful for living tissues...

  2. Interesting that you should mention OsO4. It certainly existed well before Ni(CO)4--the element osmium was named because it smelled-and they could only have been smelling traces of the tertroxide. Oh well, beryllium was originally named glucinium--because it was sweet!

    It also turns out I know a fair bit about osmium--I used to work with both the tetroxide and the carbonyls.

  3. What kind of work did you do with the carbonyls?

    I can't remember if I actually worked with the tetroxide, but as with the ethyl methanesulfonate used to mutate the specimens, I got to work with the end-products.

  4. Synthesis, characterization, mechanistic studies.