The periodic table of elements is the result of a great effort on the part of hundreds of people who for centuries have tried to understand how things are made. Over the years, this arrangement of chemical elements has become, universally, one of the most recognized images of science.
However, it is not a well-known fact that Spain made a significant contribution to the periodic table with the discovery of three chemical elements: vanadium, tungsten and platinum, nor are the people who did so very well known.
The four Spaniards to whom this great contribution to science is owed are:
Andrés Manuel del Río
This Spanish-Mexican mineralogist, born in Madrid on November 10, 1764, discovered a soft and scarcely abundant metal in a mine in Zimapán (Mexico) in 1801.
It was baptized with various names: zimapanio (for the place where it was found), panchromio (in Greek, many colors) and erythronium (for turning reddish when heated since in Greek erythros is red).
Andrés Manuel del Río gave some samples to the French chemist H. Víctor Collet-Descotils for analysis, but he answered, wrongly, that it only contained chromium, so he thought that his discovery had been a mistake.
In 1830, Swedish chemist Nils Grabril Sefström rediscovered the colorful element and named it vanadium after the Scandinavian goddess of beauty Vanadis. The following year, his German colleague Firedrich Wöhler confirmed that it was the same element that the Spanish-Mexican scientist had already found. However, the name given by the Swedish scientist was maintained.
Andrés Manuel del Río had a productive academic life in Europe and North America. His extensive scientific work includes the discovery and description of various mineral species, as well as the development of innovative methods for their extraction.
He was one of the founders of the Palacio de Minería in the Mexican capital, establishing the bases of what is now the Institute of Geology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He was also a member of many other institutions, such as the Royal Academy of Natural Sciences of Madrid, the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Institute of France, the Economic Society and the Linnaean Society of Leipzig and the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. in addition to being president of the Geological Society of Philadelphia and the New York Lyceum of Natural History.
He died on March 23, 1849 in Mexico City and, after his death, the important mining district that includes Batopilas, in Chihuahua, was named after him, currently being the Andrés del Río Judicial District. .
There is also the prestigious "Andrés Manuel del Río" National Chemistry Award, which was instituted by the Chemical Society of Mexico in 1964, with the purpose of making a national public recognition of the work carried out by chemistry professionals who have contributed significantly extraordinary way to raise the quality and prestige of the profession.
Brothers Juan José and Fausto de Elhuyar y Zubice
Wolfram (now known as tungsten) is the only chemical element that has been isolated for the first time in Spain.
The brothers of Elhuyar and Zubice studied medicine, surgery, natural history, and chemistry in Paris. Fausto, the youngest of them, was a professor of Mineralogy and Metallurgy at the Royal Seminary of Vergara.
In 1781, Carl Wilhelm Scheele (discoverer of oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, barium, manganese and molybdenum) theoretically described tungsten. After many attempts, he failed to isolate it and only succeeded in obtaining its oxide from a mineral called, in his honor, scheelite.
In 1783, the brothers of Elhuyar and Zubice managed to isolate it successfully using a charcoal reduction on a mineral that Juan José had brought from his journeys through the European mines and universities called wolframite, after which the Spanish called the element tungsten. However, the IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry), the body responsible for standards for the naming of chemical compounds, favored the name tungsten, although the symbol is still W and the salts continue to be called tungstates.
The brothers of Elhuyar and Zubice did not achieve as much notoriety as their element, especially Juan José who, after his discovery, was sent by the Spanish government to Santa Fe de Bogotá to work in the silver mines of Mariquita and died in 1796 in the city of Bogotá, in the then Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada (currently Colombia).
On the other hand, Fausto de Elhuyar y Zubice had a more promising career than his brother despite the circumstances. He was left without the salary that the state gave him and seeing that in Spain he had little future, he left for Mexico, which was still part of the Spanish empire. He was appointed General Director of Mining in Mexico, created the College of Mining and the Palacio de la Minería.
Because of the revolutionary movement that led to the independence of Mexico, he returned to Spain in 1821, where he was appointed General Director of Mining, Public Credit and the School of Almadén (Ciudad Real) and founded the first School of Mines in Madrid. . At that time Minister of Finance, López Ballesteros, commissioned him to prepare an organic bill for the development of mining in Spain, which was embodied in the Royal Decree of July 4, 1825.
Finally, in 1833, he was assigned to Ribadeo (Lugo) as inspector of the Mining District of Galicia and Asturias and that same year he died in Madrid.
Antonio de Ulloa
He was born in Seville in 1716. A Spanish scientist, soldier, and sailor, he embarked at the age of thirteen on the galleon San Luis bound for Cartagena de Indias, from where he returned in 1732 and continued his career as a sailor and soldier.
In 1735, with the aim of settling the problem of the dimensions of the Earth, the Academie Royale des Sciences of France appointed two scientific expeditions. One would go to Lapland (near the North Pole) and another to Ecuador (near Quito) to measure the meridian arc between those extreme places that would demonstrate the hypothesis that the geometric surface of the Earth could be assimilated to an ellipsoid flattened by the poles. . Antonio de Ulloa was responsible for the mission to Ecuador.
During this trip, he discovered in the gold mines of the Pinto River in Peru, a new mineral that he called "Platina de Pinto" for its resemblance to silver and for having found it in that river. However, he eventually stuck with the platinum name. Antonio de Ulloa was the first to carry out a rigorous analysis and description of this element with atomic number 78 on the periodic table.
Back in Spain he was captured by the English and taken to England. He took advantage of his stay there to complete his knowledge and publish some studies on the new mineral. He also met the president of the Royal Society, which he became a member of in 1746.
Meanwhile, in 1741, Charles Wood brought the first samples of platinum to England and, following Ulloa's publication in 1748, they began to study the properties of this highly valuable element in England and Sweden. Because of this fact, British historians say that platinum was discovered by Wood and not by Antonio de Ulloa.
In 1758, he was appointed governor of Huancavélica (Peru) and superintendent of its famous mercury mine, in which he tried to apply his knowledge and experience and introduce administrative reforms, but was not very successful.
In 1766, he was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, but was driven out by French colonists in 1768.
The War of Independence of the United States, to which Spain had just joined, again meant that he went to sea in command of another fleet and, in 1779, he was promoted to lieutenant general of the Navy and carried out two missions to the Azores. and Cape Spartel. In addition, he was the founder of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History (which gave rise to the National Museum of Natural Sciences), the Cádiz Astronomical Observatory and the first laboratory to investigate metallurgical techniques in the entire country. He was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, of the Prussian Academy, known as the Berlin Academy, and a correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris.
The rest of his life was spent in Cádiz (Spain) until his death in 1795.