Ernest Solvay

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(b. Rebecq-Rognon, near Brussels, Belgium, 16 April 1838: d. Brussels, 26 May 1922)

industrial chemistry.

After a modest education at local schools,solvay entered the salt-making business owned father, Alexandra Solvay. Then, at the agt twenty-one, he joined his uncle Florimond Semet in managing a gasworks in Brussels—his particular concern being the discovery of better method concentrating ammoniacal liquors. In 1861 he noted the ease with which ammonia, salt solution, and carbon dioxide react to form sodium bicarbon which can be converted easily to the soda ash of commerce. The glass and soap trades had created commerce The glass and soap trades had created a demand for this chemical that was met only the economically unstable and chemically complex Leblanc process. At this time Solvay was unware that the ammonia-soda reaction had been known for fifty years: that several industrial chemists, ineluding William Gossage and Henry Deacon, had been unsuccessful in employing it for large-scale production: and that James Muspratt had £8,000 on unsuccessful experiments.

Solvay’s knowledge of the industrial preparation of salt and ammonia was useful when he turned the problems of the ammonia-soda process: partic ufarly those involving the loss of expensive; monia and the practical difficulties of mixing liquids and gases on a large scale. With his brother Alfred, Solvay established (1861) a small works in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. Following some small success, and supported financially by the family, the Solvay brothers built, in 1863, a factory at Couillet, near Charleroi; production started in 1865. Solvay patented every stage of the process but granted licenses to soda manufacturers in other countries. In 1872 a license was acquired by Mond, who introduced the Solvay process in England and later achieved great success with it. Solvay’s key contribution to the soda trade was his invention of a carbonating tower in which ammoniacal brine could be mixed thoroughly with carbon dioxide. By 1890 Solvay had established plants in most European countries, in Russia, and in the United States.

Solvay was a member of the Belgian senate and a minister of state. He founded the Solvay International Institutes of Chemistry, of Physics, and of Sociology. By the terms of Solvay’s gift, the institutes held periodical international conferences at which such broad areas of science as electrons and photons (1928), the solid state (1951), and the origin and structure of the universe were discussed. The names of the participants testify to the quality of the contributions. The 1928 physics congress, for example, was addressed by Bragg, de Broglie, Bohr, Bom, Heisenberg , and SchrÖdinger.


I. Original Works. Solvay’s only descriptions of his process are contained in his patents–the most important are the British patents 3131 of 1863, 1525 of 1872, 2143 of 1876, and 999 of 1904. The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, XI. 450, XVIII, 845, lists nine papers of only minor importance.

II. Secondary Literature. A meticulously detailed description of Solvay’s plant and methods appears in G. Lunge, The Manufacture of Sulphuric Acid and Alkali. 2nd ed.,III (Londo 1896) . 9- 100 . Obituaries, with portraits appear in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry. 14 (1922), 1156 Journal of the Society of Chemical industry, 41 (1922). 23 1–R: and Revue tic métallurgie. 19 (1922), 696, which contains several errors. See also Jacques Bolle. Solvay: L’homme, la découverte I’enterprise industrielle(Brussels. 1968): E Farber, Great Chemists(New York, I961) 773–782; and P Heger and C. Lefebure, La vie d’Ernest Solay (russels. 1919).

W. A. Campbell

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Ernest Solvay (ĕrnĕst´ sôlvā´), 1838–1922, Belgian industrial chemist and philanthropist. He originated the Solvay process and established (1863) near Charleroi, Belgium, the first plant for making soda by this process; later, plants were set up in many countries. He founded at Brussels the Solvay institutes of physiology (1893) and sociology (1901) and made large gifts to European universities.