Fluorine: the Omnivorous

by L. Vlasov  and D. Trifonov

   That is what the prominent Soviet scientist A. E. Fersman called it. For the world knows no element more ferocious, nature has produced no substance chemically more active than the main character of this story. 

   You will never find it in nature in the native state, but only in the form of compounds. Its English name is fluorine from the Latin fluo meaning "flow". But its Russian name ftor is derived from the Greek for "destructive." This is a second, no less forceful term characterizing the main feature of this representative of the seventh group of the Mendeleyev Table.

   It has been said that "the path to free fluorine led through human tragedy." These are not just fine words. Man has discovered 104 elements. In the hunt for new simple substances researchers overcame a multitude of difficulties, knew many disappointments, became the victims of curious errors.

   The pursuit of traces of unknown elements has cost scientists a great deal of effort. Fluorine, the element fluorine in its free form, has cost lives. Long is the doleful list of casualties incurred in attempts to obtain free fluorine. Knox, a member of the Irish Academy of Science, the French chemist Niklesse, the Belgian researcher Layette, all fell victim to the "omnivorous." And many more scientists suffered severe injuries.

   Among them were the prominent French chemists Gay­Lussac and Thénard and the English chemist Humphry Davy. There were no doubt also unknown investigators on whom fluorine took revenge for insolent attempts to isolate it from its compounds.

When on June 28, 1886, Henri Moissan reported to the Paris Academy of Science that he had finally succeeded in obtaining free fluorine, he had a black bandage over one of his eyes.

The French scientist Moissan was the first to find out what the element fluorine was like in the free state. And it must be owned that many chemists were afraid to work with this element.

   Twentieth-century scientists have found methods of bridling the fury of fluorine, have hunted out ways of making it serve mankind. The chemistry of this element has now become a large independent field of inorganic chemistry. The terrible "genius" of the bottle has been subdued. And the efforts of the numerous fighters for free fluorine have been well repaid.