What Is the History of Urea?


Quick Answer

Hilaire Rouelle first discovered urea crystals in 1773. The breakthrough for its synthesis came in 1828, when Friedrich Wohler made crystals of urea for the first time. Since then urea has become one of the most important chemicals, used widely as of 2015 as a fertilizer and industrial raw material.

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Full Answer

In 1773, French chemist Hilaire Rouelle was the first discover urea crystals from the urine of several animals, including humans. At that time, scientists were familiar with complex organic chemicals, but chemical analysis showed that urea was a very simple compound.

Friedrich Wohler, a scientist in Berlin and famous as the discoverer of aluminium, made a breakthrough in 1828 while attempting to create ammonium cyanate. Instead, the resulting crystals behaved like the ones that Hilaire Rouelle had found. Because ammonium cyanate is an unstable compound, the atoms quickly rearranged into a more stable compound, which turned out to be urea.

Wohler was actually displeased with his discovery because forming the crystals of urea in the lab actually proved the vitalism theory, which Wohler supported, false. The theory held that life was not subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, so the supporters of the theory believed that it was not possible to create in the laboratory any chemicals present naturally in plants or animals.

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