Aluminium encyclopaedia

Sainte-Claire Deville, Henri-Etienne

Henri-Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville (1818-1881) earned a medical degree in Paris in 1843 but subsequently devoted himself to chemistry. From 1851 onwards he was a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris. Building on the work of Wöhler, by 1854 he had developed the first useable process for aluminium extraction. Like Wöhler, he used aluminium chloride as the starting material but he used cheap sodium instead of the expensive potassium as reducing agent. In a complicated and expensive process, sodium combines with chlorine to form sodium chloride (common salt). Aluminium remains as a residue.

At the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1855, Sainte-Claire Deville"s aluminium ingots aroused great interest as "silver from clay". In the following years he set up several factories with the support of Emperor Napoleon III, who hoped to obtain lightweight breastplates for the cavalry. Thanks to improvements in the production, the price of aluminium fell between 1855 and 1890, during which time a total of 200 tonnes were extracted. In Germany, 20 tonnes were produced using a modified process in Hemelingen near to Bremen in 1886/87.

Sainte-Claire Deville"s classical textbook De l´Aluminium (About Aluminium) appeared in 1859. In it, Sainte-Claire Deville proposed fused-salt electrolysis for aluminium extraction, for which Hall and Héroult applied for patents in 1886 and which replaced his chemical process (see chronology).

Sainte-Claire Deville also did excellent work in other fields of chemistry, such as the characterisation of boron, platinum and magnesium and in high-temperature chemistry. His students included a number of important French chemists.