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Friday, April 1, 2011

Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen

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The pioneer of Photochemistry, forerunner in the field of organoarsenic chemistry, and discoverer of caesium and rubidium Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen was a German Scientist who was born a day ago in 1811(31.03.1811) in Gottingen. He was the youngest of four sons of the Chief librarian of the University of Gottingen and the Professor of Modern Philology, Christian Bunsen (1770 -1837). The Encyclopedia Britannica has cited his date of birth as 31st March. However, sources disagree on it. A hand written Curriculum Vitae and Bunsen’s Parish register mention that his date of birth was 30th March.

Bunsen attended his school in Holzminden, and matriculated at Gottingen in 1828. He studied Chemistry with Friedrich Stromeyer and obtained Ph.D. degree in 1831. He travelled extensively in Germany, France and Australia for two years and met with Friedlieb Runge, the discoverer of aniline and isolator of Caffeine (1819). It was during his tour of the period that he could meet some other eminent scientists as well. Bunsen did not marry and remained bachelor the whole life.

Gustav Kirchhoff( left ) and Robert Bunsen (right)
source: Wikipedia 

Bunsen's Grave in Heidelberg
source: Wikipedia 

University Service
Bunsen became a lecturer at Gottingen where he started his original researches in chemistry. There he began experimental studies of the (in) solubility of metal salts of arsenous acid. His discovery of the Iron Oxide hydrate as a precipitating agent is still the best known antidote against arsenic poisoning.

 He was the developer of the Bunsen burner an improved version of the laboratory burners. He discovered the elements Caesium and Rubidium with Gustav Kirchhoff and hence the Bunsen-Kirchhoff Award for spectroscopy is named after these two scientists. Bunsen investigated emission spectra of heated elements. He accepted an associate professorship at the University of Marburg after three years. Here he continued his studies on Cacodyl derivatives. Later he was promoted to full professorship in 1841.Cacodyl is extremely toxic and undergoes spontaneous combustion in dry air and hence, it is very difficult to work with. It was specially his discovery of Cacodyl that brought him wide acclaim. It is reported that Bunsen died of arsenic poisoning. He had already lost his right eye in an explosion with Cacodyl. Bunsen was the creator of Bunsen Cell Laboratory in which he used a carbon electrode instead of the expensive platinum electrode that was used in the electrochemical cell of William Robert Grove.

It was during late 1852 that Bunsen became the successor of Leopold Gmelin at the University of Heidelberg where he used electrolysis to produce pure metals such as chromium, magnesium, aluminum, manganese, sodium, barium, calcium and lithium. He studied the photochemical formation of Hydrogen Chloride from Hydrogen and Chlorine in a long collaboration with Henry Enfield Roscoe.

Bunsen joined Gustav Kirchhoff to study the emission spectra of heated elements. This is a research area which is called as Spectrum Analysis. It was during this research that Bunsen developed an improved burner with the help of his laboratory assistant Peter Desaga. This burner provided a very hot and clean flam. The same is now called as Bunsen burner.

Key WordsPhotochemistry, Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen, Gustav Kirchhoff, emission spectra of heated elements, Bunsen burner

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