Mitscherlich, Alexander

Mitscherlich, Alexander
SUBJECT AREA: Paper and printing
b. 28 May 1836 Berlin, Germany
d. 31 May 1918 Oberstdorf, Germany
German inventor of sulphite wood pulp for papermaking.
Mitscherlich had an impeccable scientific background; his father was the celebrated chemist Eilhardt Mitscherlich, discoverer of the law of isomorphism, and his godfather was Alexander von Humboldt. At first his progress at school failed to live up to this auspicious beginning and his father would only sanction higher studies if he first qualified as a teacher so as to assure a means of livelihood. Alexander rose to the occasion and went on to gain his doctorate at the age of 25 in the field of mineralogical chemistry. He worked for a few years as Assistant to the distinguished chemists Wöhler in Göttingen and Wurtz in Paris. On his father's death in 1863, he succeeded him as teacher of chemistry in the University of Berlin. In 1868 he accepted a post in the newly established Forest Academy in Hannoversch-Munden, teaching chemistry, physics and geology. The post offered little financial advantage, but it left him more time for research. It was there that he invented the process for producing sulphite wood pulp.
The paper industry was seeking new raw materials. Since the 1840s pulp had been produced mechanically from wood, but it was unsuitable for making fine papers. From the mid-1860s several chemists began tackling the problem of separating the cellulose fibres from the other constituents of wood by chemical means. The American Benjamin C.Tilghman was granted patents in several countries for the treatment of wood with acid or bisulphite. Carl Daniel Ekman in Sweden and Karl Kellner in Austria also made sulphite pulp, but the credit for devising the process that came into general use belongs to Mitscherlich. His brother Oskar came to him at the Academy with plans for producing pulp by the action of soda, but the results were inferior, so Mitscherlich substituted calcium bisulphite and in the laboratory obtained good results. To extend this to a large-scale process, he was forced to set up his own mill, where he devised the characteristic towers for making the calcium bisulphite, in which water trickling down through packed lime met a rising current of sulphur dioxide. He was granted a patent in Luxembourg in 1874 and a German one four years later. The sulphite process did not make him rich, for there was considerable opposition to it; government objected to the smell of sulphur dioxide, forestry authorities were anxious about the inroads that might be made into the forests and his patents were contested. In 1883, with the support of an inheritance from his mother, Mitscherlich resigned his post at the Academy to devote more time to promoting his invention. In 1897 he at last succeeded in settling the patent disputes and achieving recognition as the inventor of sulphite pulp. Without this raw material, the paper industry could never have satisfied the insatiable appetite of the newspaper presses.
Further Reading
H.Voorn "Alexander Mitscherlich, inventor of sulphite wood pulp", Paper Maker 23(1): 41–4.

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

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