Field of Science

Elemental tales: Strong waters

I ran across a reference to aqua fortis in one of the commentaries in Chemical News (1891). The conversation is about a suit in court where a chemist was injured when an inappropriately packaged bottle of aqua fortis spilled. (It had a cork, and according to the rather snarky commentator, the judge — and the chemist in question — should have known that aqua fortis should not be capped with a cork.)

Aqua fortis, literally strong water, was once the common name for nitric acid. Concentrated nitric acid is a strong oxidizing agent (I can still see the small scar on my mother's hand from a spill in her undergraduate days), and I imagine would rather quickly eat away any organic matter, such as a cork. Glass would obviously be the preferred medium for storage. The suit is a frivolous one!

The term aqua fortis has fallen out of fashion, but its companion term has not: aqua regia, the royal water that would dissolve even gold. Aqua regia, as any general chemistry text will tell you, is a mix of concentrated nitric acid and concentrated hydrochloric acid (a 1:3 ratio by volume). Neither acid alone with dissolve gold (or a variety of other hard to oxidize metals), but the trick lies in the shifting equilibria.

Nitric acid is able to oxidize small amounts of gold, turning elemental gold into ions, Au3+. These ions then react with the chloride ions from the hydrochloric acid to form the complex ion AuCl4. As the gold ions are pulled into the chloroaurate complex, the nitric acid oxidizes a bit more elemental gold. This goes on until all the solid elemental gold has been turned in chloroaurate ions floating around in solution. Imagine putting out a bowl of pretzels, as the pretzels get eaten, you try to keep it full by adding more pretzels. Eventually you run out of pretzels. The trick of using complex ion formation to drive something that isn't very soluble into solution is a common one.

Arguably the most famous example of this happened when the Nazis invaded Copenhagen. Franck and von Laue had given their 23 karat Nobel prize medals to Bohr to prevent the Nazis from confiscating them. Bohr was reluctant to bury them, sure that wherever they were hidden, a search would eventually turn them up. A chemist on staff, de Hevesy, thought to use aqua regia to dissolve the medals. After the war the gold was precipitated out and recast into medals; Franck received his recast medal in the early 1950s. Those were strong waters indeed that Bohr and de Hevesy waded into.

You can read a bit more about the saving of Franck and von Laue's medals at the Nobel site and see a video of aqua regia in action here.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and will use in my chemistry teaching. I recall when I was an undergrad and pipetting was done by sucking, I got 5 M NaOH in my mouth and in the second it took me to get it out, it sloughed off all the surface skin so my tongue was smooth and it was too painful to eat. I learned a lesson. I became a theorist!


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