Deville, Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire

SUBJECT AREA: Metallurgy
b. 11 March 1818 St Thomas, Virgin Islands
d. 1 July 1881 Boulogne-sur-Seine, France
French chemist and metallurgist, pioneer in the large-scale production of aluminium and other light metals.
Deville was the son of a prosperous shipowner with diplomatic duties in the Virgin Islands. With his elder brother Charles, who later became a distinguished physicist, he was sent to Paris to be educated. He took his degree in medicine in 1843, but before that he had shown an interest in chemistry, due particularly to the lectures of Thenard. Two years later, with Thenard's influence, he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Besançon. In 1851 he was able to return to Paris as Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. He remained there for the rest of his working life, greatly improving the standard of teaching, and his laboratory became one of the great research centres of Europe. His first chemical work had been in organic chemistry, but he then turned to inorganic chemistry, specifically to improve methods of producing the new and little-known metal aluminium. Essentially, the process consisted of forming sodium aluminium trichloride and reducing it with sodium to metallic aluminium. He obtained sodium in sufficient quantity by reducing sodium carbonate with carbon. In 1855 he exhibited specimens of the metal at the Paris Exhibition, and the same year Napoleon III asked to see them, with a view to using it for breastplates for the Army and for spoons and forks for State banquets. With the resulting government support, he set up a pilot plant at Jarvel to develop the process, and then set up a small company, the Société d'Aluminium at Nan terre. This raised the output of this attractive and useful metal, so it could be used more widely than for the jewellery to which it had hitherto been restricted. Large-scale applications, however, had to await the electrolytic process that began to supersede Deville's in the 1890s. Deville extended his sodium reduction method to produce silicon, boron and the light metals magnesium and titanium. His investigations into the metallurgy of platinum revolutionized the industry and led in 1872 to his being asked to make the platinum-iridium (90–10) alloy for the standard kilogram and metre. Deville later carried out important work in high-temperature chemistry. He grieved much at the death of his brother Charles in 1876, and his retirement was forced by declining health in 1880; he did not survive for long.
Deville published influential books on aluminium and platinum; these and all his publications are listed in the bibliography in the standard biography by J.Gray, 1889, Henri Sainte-Claire Deville: sa vie et ses travaux, Paris.
Further Reading
M.Daumas, 1949, "Henri Sainte-Claire Deville et les débuts de l'industrie de l'aluminium", Rev.Hist.Sci 2:352–7.
J.C.Chaston, 1981, "Henri Sainte-Claire Deville: his outstanding contributions to the chemistry of the platinum metals", Platinum Metals Review 25:121–8.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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