Ascanio Sobrero


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(1812–1888) Italian chemist

Born at Casal in Italy, Sobrero began by studying medicine but changed to chemistry, attending the universities at Turin, Paris, and Giessen. He became professor of chemistry at Turin in 1849, staying there until his retirement in 1882.

In 1846 – the year that Christian Schönbein discovered nitrocellulose – Sobrero discovered an even more powerful explosive, nitroglycerin. By slowly stirring drops of glycerin into a cooled mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids he produced a new but unpredictable explosive. Unlike Schönbein, Sobrero showed no desire to exploit the commercial value of his discovery. As it was liable to explode on receiving the slightest vibration there seemed to be no way to develop it, and its liquid nature made it difficult to use as a blaster. It was not utilized until 1866, when Alfred Nobel mixed it with the earth kieselguhr to produce a compound that could be transported and handled without too much difficulty. In this form – dynamite – it was used extensively in the great engineering programs of roads, railroads, and harbors of the late 19th century.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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