Skip to main content

The man every chemist in the country worked for

© Форпост Северо-Запад

Despite the fact that chemistry begins to be studied in the eighth grade and is indispensable in dozens of industries that are crucial for the economy, if an ordinary Russian is asked to name the names of great Russian chemists, the vast majority will limit themselves to Lomonosov and Mendeleev. Only a small part would add a third name - Academician Nikolai Kurnakov.

One of the strongest specialized research institutes in Russia is the Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Established in 1934, it is currently included in international rankings of leading scientific organizations and is engaged in strategic directions for the country. In the past six months alone, the institution's employees synthesized hybrid halovismutates, promising for use in solar batteries, and on the basis of well-known dyes (phthalocyanines) obtained a new class of molecular switches, which may help in the fight against cancer. This fruitful division of the Academy of Sciences bears the name of its first director, Nikolai Kurnakov.

It is unlikely that the young pupil of a closed military gymnasium in Nizhny Novgorod guessed about the forthcoming recognition, when with the help of a popular at the time textbook "Initial study of chemistry by means of the simplest experiments, without the aid of a tutor" Julius Shtekgardt conducted his first experiments in the mezzanine of his parents' house. Initially, the son of the hero of the defense of Malakhov Kurgan was expected to have a completely different career. However, a small home laboratory determined the young man's choice of profession.

домашняя лаборатория
© Общественное достояние

In 1877, Nikolai Semyonovich obtained a certificate that allowed him to enter any higher educational institution, and headed for the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg.

Why did Kurnakov in principle go to a mining university? Chemical and metallurgical direction has always been one of the main ones in the educational and scientific activities of the institute. Even by the opening of the Mining School, the chemical classes were equipped with ore washing workbenches, various smelting and roasting furnaces, foundry devices. Several thousand poods of various ores were brought in for practical work. It was from these classrooms that the five departments of the modern Faculty of Mineral Processing grew: chemical technologies and energy processing, metallurgy, enrichment, physical and general chemistry.

горный университет
© Общественное достояние

After graduation, the graduate went on a business trip to Altai to study how copper, silver, and lead are smelted. After his return, Nikolai Semyonovich was left at his alma mater - he was offered to read special courses and conduct practical classes in the Chemical Laboratory of Catherine II. Just a few months later, for excellent service, he received the first Order of St. Stanislaus.

True, how happy the young man was, it is difficult to judge. Awards were made of noble metal with precious stones, and they had to buy them back. Dmitry Mendeleev's niece recalled that her uncle, obtained another order, was very upset by the forced waste.

At the end of the XIX century in the universities of the Russian Empire was customary to send candidates for teaching positions for training in Western Europe. Therefore, the young scientist spent the entire year of 1883 abroad. He worked in the laboratories of the Freiberg Academy, familiarized himself with the factories, salt mines and breweries of Saxony and Bohemia, and after - went to France and Austria to learn the actual methods of work on the assay art.

The result was the dissertation "Evaporation systems of salt marshes", the defense of which in 1885 allowed Kurnakov to receive the title of adjunct. In 1893 Nikolai Semenovich became a professor of inorganic chemistry, and in 1899 - head of the Chemical Laboratory and the Department of Analytical Chemistry, which was considered the most prestigious. In the next few years, the scientist, while continuing to work at Mining, organized the teaching of physical chemistry at the Electrotechnical Institute and general chemistry at the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute.


The professor persuaded the teams of the three institutes to work in a unified direction. He was constantly concerned about increasing the volume of research by attracting new forces. His assistants were Alexander Kuznetsov, the later famous inventor of the explosive substance "Sinal", Peter Saldau, the future Vice-Rector of the Mining Institute, Nikolai Stepanov, corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and many others.

With the new century began the most fruitful period in the research activities of Nikolai Semenovich.

Obtaining refining of platinum group metals

Although Russia produced the lion's share of platinum, the country was completely dependent on the foreign market. Ores were exported abroad for refining, where the bulk of the precious metals were eventually left. Developing ways to process platinum ores became a strategic task.

In 1922 Kurnakov headed the Institute for the study of platinum and other noble metals, where the focus was on developing methods of refining, as well as separating pure metals from each other. The results were not long in coming. The plant in Yekaterinburg began producing platinum, followed by palladium and iridium in 1923, rhodium in 1925, osmium in 1926, and ruthenium in 1930. Over time, other enterprises joined the cause. In the same period, the technology for extracting platinum and all its satellites was obtained, which is still the basis of modern refining. As a result of the work, Nikolai Kurnakov was awarded the Lenin Prize for scientific works in the field of physical chemistry of platinum group metals.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Salt lakes and deposits

The scientist was interested in this subject since his student days, and he did not stop studying it throughout his career: he investigated brines, muds and salt deposits in many basins of the USSR, established the reasons for the formation of salt lakes and ways of their industrial utilization. With his active participation Verkhnekamskoe deposit of potassium-magnesium salts, magnesium, bromine and iodine reserves of Crimean salt lakes and limans, salt deposits of the West Siberian region were developed. He also promoted the launch of Solikamsk and Dnepropetrovsk magnesium plants.

Once Mendeleev lamented: "The whole world can be supplied with the cheapest sulphate from one deposit Kara-Bogaz, and it can serve as a basis for the huge development of glass production".

Nikolai Semenovich organized a series of expeditions to Turkmenistan and investigated the water system of magnesium sulfate - sodium chloride, which contributed to the development of the method of glauber salt extraction from the waters of the Kara-Bogaz-Gol bay. Dmitry Ivanovich's dream of industrial exploitation of local salt was realized in 1924, and import of raw materials to Russia was stopped.

© NASA/ Залив-лагуна Кара-Богаз-Гол

Creation of a physicochemical analysis method

The most significant contribution was the creation of a new scientific direction.

Metal alloys, despite a considerable amount of research, remained a little-understood terra incognita until the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time, the development of technology contributed to the invention of new metal combinations and required precise determination of their properties.

In the century before last, chemistry was based on the law of constant and multiple ratios and was powerless in the study of slags, liquid and solid solutions, alloys. European science tried to apply the model of salt solutions to build a theory of alloys. However, if the transformation of salt solutions and the formation of phases in them could be observed visually due to their transparency and variety of colors, the physical and chemical study of metallic systems required a different approach. Kurnakov made possible the study of undefined compounds characteristic of silicates and alloys.

Initially, the research focused on determining the dependence of phase transition temperatures on composition. The study of the melting (or solubility) temperature "made it possible to apply to metallic alloys the basic physicochemical techniques from the vast field of solutions in general".

The expansion of the research required a very accurate recording system. The scientist invented a recording instrument with automatic recording of melting and solidification curves of alloys. Kurnakov's pyrometer captured and recorded instantaneous changes that elude direct observation.

© Общественное достояние

But soon these methods were recognized as insufficient for the full disclosure of the complex processes occurring in metallic solutions. It was proved that the true nature of an alloy can be judged only by simultaneous and comparative study of various physical and chemical properties. Kurnakov subsequently showed that any physical property is a function of composition, and electrical conductivity, viscosity, surface tension, heat capacity, refractive index, and elasticity can be used to determine the phase state.

"The study of the relationship between the composition and diverse properties of simple and multi-component metal alloys, geometrization of the results in the form of planar and spatial diagrams, the subsequent extension of research techniques to various metal compounds - sulfide, oxide, silicate, carbonate, phosphate, salt and others, as well as in the field of organic compounds, entailed the formation and then the powerful development of a new highly fruitful scientific discipline of "physico-chemical analysis" - wrote a student of Kurnakov, a famous metallurgist Naum Grein

This revolutionized not only chemistry, but also the development of many technical disciplines. The new method became widely used in metallurgy, petrochemistry, petrography, mineralogy and other fields.

© Общественное достояние

In 1918, Nikolai Kurnakov created and headed the State Institute of Applied Chemistry and the Institute of Physico-Chemical Analysis. In 1934, the latter became part of the new Institute of General and Inorganic Chemistry of the USSR Academy of Sciences, which also included the Laboratory of General Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Platinum. Kurnakov became the head of this large structure.

Nikolai Semyonovich received many awards - from the first Mendeleev Prize to the title of Honored Scientist of the USSR. In the last year of his life (1941) he was awarded the Stalin Prize for his work on physical chemistry and his work "Introduction to Physical and Chemical Analysis", published the day before.

© Вручение ордена председателем Президиума Верховного Совета СССР Михаилом Калининым

Forecast of the great chemist

Once at a meeting of the All-Russian Conference on the study of the productive forces of the country, Nikolai Semyonovich said:

"To the chemical method belongs a great future in multiplying the riches of Russia. We will enter the period of utilization of our mineral resources through processing of raw materials with the help of chemical and metallurgical processes associated with profound changes in the inner nature of matter. The more complex and delicate these processes are, the more refined should be the means of chemical testing."

These words became prophetic.

Today in the walls of Kurnakov's alma mater and main place of work - Mining University - research in the field of deep processing of mineral and anthropogenic resources is actively conducted. The university's partners include flagship domestic companies interested in the results of these studies. These are Gazprom, SIBUR, Omsk Titan, PhosAgro and many others. The specialized scientific center is working on the directions demanded by the domestic economy. These include research in the field of needle coke production, production of components for biodiesel, creation of breakthrough technologies in the development of fuel additives to minimize environmental damage, and many others.

горный университет
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Павел Долганов