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Welsbach, Carl Auer, Baron von

gas oxides lighting minerals

(1858–1929) Austrian chemist: inventor of the gas mantle.

Carl Auer studied chemistry at the polytechnic in his birthplace, Vienna, and later in Heidelberg with . His interest in minerals, especially in the ‘rare earth’ minerals of northern Europe, led him to discover in 1885, as their oxides, two new metallic elements which he named praseodymium and neodymium.

At that time artificial lighting was by candles, oil, or town gas (usually coal gas) which gave a luminous flame, but electric lighting was clearly competitive after 1882. Auer found that a mixture of hot rare-earth oxides was strongly luminescent. In 1885 he patented his ‘gas mantle’ made by soaking a cylinder of cotton in a solution of thorium nitrate with 1% cerium nitrate and burning off the cotton to give a fragile cup-shaped frame of the metal oxides. These mantles, heated by a hot non-luminous flame, gave new life to gas as an illuminant, and it was used for public and home lighting until the 1950s.

Auer, by now von Welsbach, also introduced the use of a pyrophoric alloy of iron with cerium and lanthanum in igniters, in which the ‘flint’ is abraded by a steel wheel and the sparks ignite gas or petrol vapour.

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