Aluminium encyclopaedia

Wöhler, Friedrich

Friedrich Wöhler (1800-1882) carried out chemical analyses even when he was a boy and studied medicine and chemistry in Heidelberg. From 1825 onwards he taught at the Polytechnic School in Berlin. It was while he was there that he produced pure aluminium in 1827 (at Oersted"s suggestion, but using a better method). He heated pea-sized pieces of potassium and an equal amount of aluminium chloride in a porcelain crucible with a spirit flame, which formed potassium chloride and thus reduced the aluminium. The potassium chloride dissolved in cold water leaving behind a grey powder, which according to Wöhler appeared to consist of numerous small metal spangles when observed more closely, especially in sunlight. It was aluminium.

Later he managed to produce it in larger lumps and, as the first person to do so, determine the most important properties of aluminium, for example density, electrical conductivity, corrosion resistance and combustibility.

In 1828 Wöhler managed to synthesise urea from cyanic acid and ammonia, which made him famous; this was the first time that an organic substance, as produced by living things, had been artificially extracted from inorganic substances, which had hitherto been regarded as impossible. In 1836 Wöhler became Professor of Chemistry at the University of Göttingen, where he taught numerous distinguished chemists. Described as a reserved, systematic researcher, he made outstanding contributions in all areas of chemistry; in addition to 280 scientific papers he wrote several standard textbooks and he maintained his mental vigour and his enjoyment of experimenting in the laboratory to a ripe old age.