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Experiments with Carbonic Acid Gas

In 1823 Mr. Faraday made the important discovery that under certain conditions of temperature and pressure many gases could be liquefied, and that these liquids exerted great expansive force by slight additions of temperature, returning quickly with regularity and certainty to their original state upon the application of cold.

The discovery of this new force appeared of such importance, that Mr. Faraday lost no time in publishing it to the world; and Sir Isambard Brunel very soon afterwards commenced a series of experiments to determine the value of the liquid gas as a mechanical agent.

The first experiments were made at Chelsea; but the prosecution of them was soon transferred to the care of Mr. Brunel at Rotherhithe, where he devoted all his spare time to the construction of his father’s proposed ‘Differential Power Engine.’

That the progress of this discovery, and of the experiments made with a view to the application of the liquid gas, as a motive power, may be understood, it is necessary to state that in March 1823 Mr. Faraday communicated to the Royal Society the results of his first experiments on the liquefaction of gases.

The fluid was then produced by the decomposition of the hydrate of chlorine by heat in a closed tube, the amount of gas evolved being so great as to produce a pressure in the tube sufficient to condense the gas into a fluid of the same volume.

This interesting experiment was followed by others with that rapidity and success so remarkable in everything undertaken at that time in the laboratory of the Royal Institution; and within a month another paper was read before the Royal Society, in which the degrees of pressure and temperature at which several gases could be liquefied were recorded, and the means employed to produce and liquefy each gas accurately described.

On April 17 a third paper was communicated by Mr. Faraday, ‘On the Application of Liquids produced by the Condensation of Gases as Mechanical Agents.’

The question is thus stated: ‘The ratio of the elastic force dependent upon pressure is to be combined with that of the expansive force dependent on temperature; and the development of latent heat on compression and the necessity of its reabsorption in expansion must awaken doubts as to the economical results to be obtained by employing the steam of water under very great pressures and very elevated temperatures.

No such doubt can arise respecting liquids, which require for their existence even a compression equal to thirty or forty atmospheres, and where slight elevations of temperature are sufficient to produce an immense elastic force, and where the principal question arising is whether the effort of mechanical motion is to be most easily produced by an increase or diminution of heat by artificial means.’

Difficulties were suggested by Mr. Faraday as to the possibility of obtaining sufficient strength in the apparatus, but the small difference of temperature required to produce an elastic force of many atmospheres, he considered would render the risk of explosion small.

To construct the machinery whereby this new force could be practically applied as a substitute for steam, occupied the time of Sir Isambard Brunel and his son at intervals for several years; for although Mr. Brunel was satisfied at an early period of the enquiry that the liquefied gases could only be advantageously employed where the cost of motive force was secondary to economy of space and to the avoidance of the cumbrous apparatus required for the use of steam, still he was so impressed with the importance of the subject, if the difficulties he foresaw in its application could be overcome, that he continued his experiments for a long period with unflagging energy and perseverance.

The facts relating to the liquefaction of the gases, their elastic force when liquefied under different temperatures, the rapidity with which they could be alternately expanded and condensed, and the best mode of producing each gas, were determined by Mr. Faraday; and as Mr. Brunel was at that time attending the morning chemical lectures at the Royal Institution, he was in constant communication with him, and thoroughly conversant with his experiments.

After Mr. Brunel had made a few preliminary experiments, Sir Isambard determined to employ liquefied carbonic acid gas for the motive power of the proposed new engine, the facility and cheapness of its production, its great expansive force, and its neutral character distinguishing it from any other gas; but it was long before vessels were constructed, in which gas could be produced in sufficient quantity and purity to exert the force required to liquefy it in its own volume, for it was soon found to be impossible to obtain the required pressure with pumps.

Carbonate of ammonia and sulphuric acid were the elements used, and the generator was so arranged that it could be charged, emptied of atmospheric air, and the joints made perfect, before the commencement of the formation of the gas which was to be liquefied.

To the generator was attached a receiver, which could be surrounded with a freezing mixture, so that the temperature of the gas in the cylinder might be below that in the generator.

The gradual formation of the liquid, the development of its elastic force, and the regularity and rapidity with which it increased or diminished by each degree of heat or cold, were carefully watched through a glass gauge, and the receiver when filled with liquid could be disconnected from the generator.

The mechanical difficulties as they arose, one after the other, in the construction and arrangement of the various parts of the generator and receiver were at length overcome; and the receiver was not only filled with liquid gas, but found to be capable of retaining it, whether exerting an elastic force of 30 atmospheres at ordinary temperatures, or of 100 atmospheres when subjected to a slight degree of heat.

The receiver being satisfactorily completed, the next object of attention was the design and construction of a working cylinder capable of resisting at least 1,400 lbs. pressure on the square inch; a task which was one of great anxiety, as any weakness might have caused a serious accident.

It was only after the trial of every known method of making joints to resist high pressures had failed, that an arrangement was devised, requiring the most perfect workmanship, by which packing of any kind was dispensed with, and the cylinder fitted for use.

With the improved tools of the present day it is not easy to realise the difficulties, delays, and disappointments which forty-five years ago occurred from the failure, first of one part of a joint, and then of another; but the construction of vessels capable of producing and also of retaining the gas in its liquid state, with the means of alternately expanding and condensing it from thirty or forty to eighty or one hundred atmospheres, having been accomplished, the object of the expenditure of so much labour and inventive power appeared to be within reach.

The construction of the machinery to utilise the elastic force contained in the cylinder was now proceeded with. Day by day new difficulties arose, and each as it was successfully met seemed but to leave another of greater importance to be surmounted.

It is not necessary in this Note to describe the various arrangements which were devised for transferring the great elastic force in the cylinder of small diameter to a piston in another cylinder of much larger dimensions; it is sufficient to say, that after the devotion of much valuable time extending over several years, and a very large expenditure of money, and after carefully considering the cost of the liquid carbonic acid gas, the difficulty of preventing waste, and the necessarily very expensive character of the machinery, Mr. Brunel was satisfied ‘that no sufficient advantage in the sense of economy of fuel can be obtained by the application of liquefied carbonic acid gas as a motive power’; but so thoroughly did he exhaust the subject before he committed himself to this opinion, that no one has since renewed the enquiry or attempted to make a machine to be moved by the elastic force of liquefied gases, the construction of which, it was well known, had baffled the inventive genius of Sir Isambard Brunel and his son.

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