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Carbon dioxide history

In the 17th century, Flemish chemist and physician Jan-Baptist van Helmont carried out a series of experiments based on charcoal combustion.

In 1638, he observed that when he burned charcoal in a closed vessel, the mass of the resulting ashes weighed less than the charcoal burned. Initially, he thought that the missing mass had been converted into an invisible substance, which he called the “wild spirit”.

In the 1750s, chemist Joseph Black looked at this compound more closely. He discovered that the gas resulting from the combustion of charcoal was the same as the one obtained by pouring acid on limestone (calcium carbonate). He deduced that this gas was denser than air and that it could not support flame. He called it “fixed air”.

His second series of experiments led him to precipitate Carbon dioxide by passing it through an aqueous solution of lime. This allowed him to demonstrate that it was indeed this gas that was both released from the lungs through respiration and produced through microbial fermentation.

In 1772, English chemist Joseph Priestley refined a process of production and use: after pouring “vitriol oil” (today known as “sulfuric acid”) on chalk, he put the resulting gas into water, forcing it to dissolve. This was the first artificially carbonated water.

It was only nine years later that Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier demonstrated that this gas was in fact the product of charcoal combustion in the presence of Oxygen.

More about the many uses of this gas

More about this gas: its physical-chemical properties