How Was Fluorine Discovered?

French scientist Henri Moissan discovered fluorine in 1886 when he ran electric currents through hydrogen fluoride, a compound that contains fluorine. With his discovery, he solved a puzzle that had brought injury and even death to earlier chemists trying to isolate this halogen gas, according to Chemistry Explained.

In its gaseous state, fluorine has a highly corrosive effect on the softer tissues inside the respiratory system. The first hints at fluorine’s existence came in the early 16th century, when German scientist Georgius Agricola named a mineral fluorspar. He claimed that adding this mineral to molten ore gave the ore increased liquidity and pliability, according to Chemistry Explained.

The year 1670 saw the next step toward the isolation of fluorine. By mixing fluorspar and acid, German glass cutter Heinrich Schwanhard found that he could etch patterns into glass more easily, leaving behind an attractive frosted picture. Etching found application in the development of precise measurement instruments as well as art. Carl Wilhelm Scheele named the combination of fluorospar and acid “hydrofluoric acid” (HF), according to Chemistry Explained.

This discovery started a race to isolate this new element. Inhaling hydrogen fluoride gas led research chemists to disability and even death, such as in the case of Belgian scientist Paulin Louyet. By placing the acid in a potassium solution and cooling it to minus 23 degrees Celsius, Moissan was able to run current through it safely. When an isolated gas emerged in one side of his apparatus, Moissan named the gas fluorine, according to Chemistry Explained.