Znak Politechniki Warszawskiej

Ignacy Mościcki - the chemist who became a president

phot: NAC

He has more than 60 articles and 40 patents in his name. The development of a method for obtaining nitric acid from the air by means of electricity is considered his most important discovery. However, the eminent chemist and inventor swapped an intensive scientific career for a political one.

Ignacy Mościcki was a professor at Warsaw University of Technology - he worked in the Faculty of Technical Electrochemistry and used numerous foreign experiments (both academic and industrial). Then came the turning point in Polish history, the year 1926. Following the May coup, Józef Piłsudski proposed for Mościcki to be the president of the country. He was reportedly convinced by the then Prime Minister - Kazimierz Bartel. On 1 June 1926, the General Assembly  of the Republic of Poland elected Mościcki to the country's most important office. The chemist replaced his laboratory for a political office and only occasionally dealt with scientific and economic-industrial problems.

His earlier achievements mean, however, that he's still being called the builder of the Polish chemical industry.

Explosive beginnings

In 1891 he graduated in chemistry at the Riga Technical University. He then moved to London, where he studied at the Technical College in Finsbury and the Patent Library. This was a forced emigration - Mościcki had been previously working on the bomb, which was to be used for the assassination of the governor general of Warsaw - Josif Hurko. The conspiracy was discovered and the participants carefully observed. Despite this Mościcki managed to escape and reach London.

In 1897, the future president of the Republic of Poland became an assistant to professor Józef Wierusz-Kowalski at the University of Freiburg. There he broadened his knowledge of physics and mathematics, as well as of scientific and technological methodology. The stay in Switzerland made Mościcki into a model electrochemist-technologist. In 1901 he took the position of technical manager at Société de l'Acide Nitrique. He worked intensely on obtaining nitric oxide from the air, with the company funding his research.

According to the state of knowledge at the time, obtaining nitrogen oxide from the air was only possible with a high temperature of electric discharges and direct binding of oxygen and nitrogen. Nitric oxide was necessary for the formation of nitric acid. The demand for this acid was huge at the time - all because of the dwindling deposits of Chilean nitrate, which was used in its production.

King of nitrogen

After many experiments Mościcki developed an original method for obtaining nitrogen oxide from the air. "Przegląd Chemiczny" (Chemical Review) published in 1958 described the discovery as follows: "professor Mościcki observed that an alternating current arc in a magnetic field is subject to the same laws as any metallic conductor. That arc, placed in a field generated by direct current, must all the time rotate and change direction as many times as the direction of the alternating current changes. He therefore constructs and patents several types of electric furnaces with a rotating arc."

The solution was unusual at that time, as it meant that nitrogen compounds could be produced cheaper and faster than before. The discovery garnered the interest of the scientific world and industry. Shortly afterwards, however, news came that a method less expensive than Mościcki's had been developed in Norway. The chemist decided that work on the construction of a nitrogen factory that was to be based on his patent, should be halted.

However, he continued his research. Albert Einstein himself praised his efforts. And soon the idea of building a factory returned. It was opened in 1910 in Chippis. Acid production on a massive scale and its sales began. During WWI this proved to be a godsend for countries that had no access to ammonium nitrate and needed explosives.

Inventions and patents

However, research on nitrogen, does not exhaust Mościcki's achievements.

His major inventions include high-voltage capacitors (first built on the Eiffel Tower) and devices to protect electrical networks against atmospheric electrical discharges.

It also turned out that electric furnaces patented by Mościcki when he was working on nitric acid, could be used in other gas reactions. He therefore used the ovens to, among others, produce hydrogen cyanide from hydrocarbons and nitrogen. For many years this process was used in the "Azot" plant in Jaworzno.

In 1912 Mościcki again went to work at a university, to the Faculty of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry of the Lviv Polytechnic National University, and three years later became the dean of the Department of Chemistry there.

He also continued intensive work in the laboratory. He conducted research on oil. He patented several methods of distillation and use of oil emulsion (harmful to the environment and considered useless).

Mościcki's heritage

Once Poland regained its independence, Mościcki got involved in the organisation of the Polish chemical industry. He believed that the economy should rely on its own raw materials and chemical plants should be public.

He began working at the Warsaw University of Technology in 1925. A year earlier, he received a doctor honoris causa title of our University.

Before he became part of the Warsaw University of Technology faculty, he managed to gain experience in the following institutions. In 1916 (together with dr. Kazimierz Kling) he established the Instytut Badań Naukowych i Technicznych – „Metan” (Institute of Scientific and Technical Research - "Methane") [together with it a scholarship fund for young engineers was established and a monthly scientific journal "Metan" published, whose name was later changed to "Przemysł Chemiczny" (Chemical Industry)]. He also managed the Chemiczny Instytut Badawczy (Chemical Research Institute) set up in 1922 and was the Director General of Państwowa Fabryka Związków Azotowych (State Nitrogen Compounds Factory) in Chorzów.

On 2 October we celebrated the 70th anniversary of Ignacy Mościcki's death.

 

Agnieszka Kapela

Office of Promotion and Information

 

Sources:

H. Lichocka: Ignacy Mościcki, Instytut Technologii Eksploatacji – PIB, Radom 2011.

M. Iłowiecki, Dzieje nauki polskiej, Wydawnictwo Interpress, Warszawa1981.

„Przemysł Chemiczny” 1958, z. 4.

„Rocznik Naukowy” 2007, nr. 5.

A. Gotówka, Ignacy Mościcki Honorowy Obywatel Zakopanego 1934, http://zakopanedlaciebie.pl/pl/sylwetki/c6031.html, dostęp: 06.10.2016.

K. Janicki, Ignacy Mościcki. Zamachowiec-samobójca i życiowy nieudacznik?, http://ciekawostkihistoryczne.pl/2012/11/10/ignacy-moscicki-zamachowiec-samobojca-i-zyciowy-nieudacznik/, dostęp: 06.10.2016.

K. Kling i W. Leśniański, Powstanie i dotychczasowa działalność Instytutu Badań Naukowych i Technicznych „Metan" oraz jego przekształcenie na „Chemiczny Instytut Badawczy”, „Przemysł Chemiczny” 1922, z. 6., http://bcpw.bg.pw.edu.pl/Content/4445/Przemysl_chemiczny_1922_vol6_s128.pdf, dostęp: 06.10.2016.

Ignacy Mościcki (1867-1946), http://dzieje.pl/postacie/ignacy-moscicki, dostęp: 06.10.2016

Ignacy Mościcki, http://tradycja.zst.tarnow.pl/strony/moscicki.html, dostęp: 06.10.2016.