He Discovered an Entire Area of the Periodic Table

Last week marked the birthday of Sir William Ramsay, the British chemist who was born on October 2, 1852.

In 1892, Ramsay became fascinated by a discovery from a fellow chemist, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt).  Rayleigh had observed that nitrogen extracted from the air always had a higher density than nitrogen extracted by other means.  Ramsay theorized that there must be another gas present, some element in the atmosphere that had not yet been discovered.

Though Ramsay and Rayleigh worked on the problem separately, they shared their progress.  Two years later, they jointly announced the discovery of a new, heavier gas.  Ramsay named it argon after the Greek argos for “lazy,” as the new gas was thought to be fairly inactive with other chemicals.

Over the next several years, Ramsay discovered neon, krypton and xenon.  He also discovered the first presence of helium anywhere outside of the sun.  Ramsay had identified an entirely new group of elements in the periodic table.  They were originally called “inert gases” due to their lack of chemical reactivity.  They are now more accurately known as “noble gases.”

In 1904, Sir Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh were jointly awarded Nobel Prizes: Ramsay for chemistry and Rayleigh for physics.

As a side note, Sir Ramsay also played a role in the technological history of India.  As a British advisor in 1900, he recommended Bangalore as the site for establishing the Indian Institute of Science, a public university for scientific research and higher education.

Today, Agilent is an industry leader in the separation, measurement and analysis of gases and other elemental substances.  Our micro GCs and columns provide a rapid method for separating and identifying argon and oxygen.  The Agilent solution can identify the oxygen and argon content in a sample of high-purity nitrogen in less than two minutes.

Over the next several years, the Russian Space Agency plans to launch two spacecraft, Luna-Glob and Luna-Resurs, to land on the poles of the moon.  Scientists are building a custom Neutral Gas Mass Spectrometer to detect and analyze volatile species in the lunar soil.  The NGMS will use a Varian/Agilent Carbobond column for the separation of noble gases.

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