How Urine Led to the Foundation of Chemistry

How Urine Led to the Foundation of Chemistry
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Hennig Brand was on to something. Or rather, he thought he was.

By the 17th century, alchemists had been trying to make gold for over a thousand years. Though the search had ultimately been fruitless for his numerous forebears, Brand, a merchant and an alchemist living in Hamburg, Germany, was not discouraged. He now considered a radical, yet surprisingly simple idea: that gold could be found within the human body, itself, and the easiest way to harvest it was by distilling down a warm, golden-hued liquid widely and thoughtlessly discarded each and every day.

It was 1669, and the quest to obtain gold from urine had begun.

Brand was not as naive as one might expect. If gold was indeed produced within the human body and excreted in urine, it would be present in very tiny amounts, he reasoned. So, he was going to need a lot of urine, far more than even he could hope to produce in a decade. Brand turned to his wealthy wife Margaretha for funding, who acquiesced (undoubtedly with some reservations). With her money, and an unabashed willingness to be "that guy," he procured more than fifty buckets of urine, roughly equal to 5,500 Liters, and retreated to his basement laboratory.

Brand knew what he needed to do first: boil down the urine to remove all of the water. Fumes soon wafted out of the basement windows onto the street, and squeezed through cracks and crevices to pervade the ground and upstairs floors of his house.

"Brand must have had some very, very patient neighbors," University College London chemistry professor Andrea Sella commented in a BBC4 documentary. "I don't really know what his romantic life was like but I can't imagine he was all that popular."

After the boiling process, Brand was left with a thick paste, which he then heated at an extremely high temperature for several days. He eventually obtained a reddish, glowing liquid, which -- amazingly -- burst into flames after only momentary contact with air. When he cooled the substance in water, he found that it eventually turned white. Brand definitely didn't find gold, but what he found was just as, if not more, exciting (though at the time he definitely didn't realize it). It was a new element, the first to be discovered in hundreds of years. He called it "icy noctiluca," because even though it burned brighter than anything anybody had ever seen on Earth, it left nearby objects chilly. Today, we call it phosphorus.

"He was looking for riches, but didn't realize that he'd unearthed a fundamental notion: that elements can be concealed within a hidden world," British nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili remarked of the discovery.

From his immense stock of urine, Brand distilled just 120 grams of phosphorus. He used some of it to try and make gold, but couldn't make a go of it. Eventually, he sold the secret of how he made it in order to recoup some of the initial costs and probably to appease his wife. That secret eventually made its way to the alchemist Robert Boyle, who not only refined the method of producing phosphorus, bet realized that the element could be used create fire on demand. It was Boyle who first placed phosphorus on the tips of wooden splints. Today we call them matches.

Most importantly, Boyle chronicled his methods and shared them with his colleagues. He even wrote them down in a book, The Skeptical Chemist, which is today recognized by many scholars as the first true chemistry book. Through his actions, Boyle introduced a revolutionary notion into the secretive, underground world of alchemy, that ideas should be shared openly.

“So phosphorus did have transformational powers after all," Al-Khalili opined. "It may not have changed lead into gold, but it turned an alchemist into the first modern chemist. Boyle had set the stage for future element hunters. Unlike most alchemists, he shared his methods, and was able to pass on the tools they needed to unlock the mysteries of matter.”

(Image: Shutterstock)

Primary Source: Chemistry: A Volatile History, BBC4

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