Castner, Hamilton Young

Castner, Hamilton Young
SUBJECT AREA: Chemical technology
b. 11 September 1858 Brooklyn, New York, USA
d. 11 October 1899 Saranoe Lake, New York, USA
American chemist, inventor of the electrolytic production of sodium.
Around 1850, the exciting new metal aluminium began to be produced by the process developed by Sainte-Claire Deville. However, it remained expensive on account of the high cost of one of the raw materials, sodium. It was another thirty years before Castner became the first to work successfully the process for producing sodium, which consisted of heating sodium hydroxide with charcoal at a high temperature. Unable to interest American backers in the process, Castner took it to England and set up a plant at Oldbury, near Birmingham. At the moment he achieved commercial success, however, the demand for cheap sodium plummeted as a result of the development of the electrolytic process for producing aluminium. He therefore sought other uses for cheap sodium, first converting it to sodium peroxide, a bleaching agent much used in the straw-hat industry. Much more importantly, Castner persuaded the gold industry to use sodium instead of potassium cyanide in the refining of gold. With the "gold rush", he established a large market in Australia, the USA, South Africa and elsewhere, but the problem was to meet the demand, so Castner turned to the electrolytic method. At first progress was slow because of the impure nature of the sodium hydroxide, so he used a mercury cathode, with which the released sodium formed an amalgam. It then reacted with water in a separate compartment in the cell to form sodium hydroxide of a purity hitherto unknown in the alkali industry; chlorine was a valuable by-product.
In 1894 Castner began to seek international patents for the cell, but found he had been anticipated in Germany by Kellner, an Austrian chemist. Preferring negotiation to legal confrontation, Castner exchanged patents and processes with Kellner, although the latter's had been less successful. The cell became known as the Castner-Kellner cell, but the process needed cheap electricity and salt, neither of which was available near Oldbury, so he set up the Castner-Kellner Alkali Company works at Runcorn in Cheshire; at the same time, a pilot plant was set up in the USA at Saltville, Virginia, with a larger plant being established at Niagara Falls.
Further Reading
A.Fleck, 1947, "The life and work of Hamilton Young Castner" (Castner Memorial Lecture), Chemistry and Industry 44:515-; Fifty Years of Progress: The Story of the Castner-Kellner Company, 1947.
T.K.Derry and T.I.Williams, 1960, A Short History of Technology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 549–50 (provides a summary of his work).

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

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