75. Rhenium: A Love Of Two Brains

Witness an incredible, unbreakable bond between two who couldn’t be more alike. We’ll also learn about a married couple.

Featured above: Left to right, Masataka Ogawa, Walter Noddack, Ida Tacke Noddack, and Otto Berg

Show Notes

 

Vintage GE Flashbulbs AG1B image 0
The packaging looks pretty cool, too!

As far as the flashbulbs, you can get those on ebay or etsy for less than $20!

Episode Script

In the canon of great chemists, Masataka Ogawa is one of the lesser-known entries — and that’s a shame.

Born in Japan in 1865, Ogawa rubbed elbows with some of the most prominent chemists in the world, including Ernest Rutherford and William Ramsay. It was while working in Ramsay’s London laboratory in 1904 that he discovered spectrographic hints of a new chemical element in a mineral sample, which he called nipponium. He didn’t find conclusive evidence, though, before his fellowship was over.

He advanced in his career back in Japan, becoming a professor and then president of the newly established Tohoku Imperial University. All the while, he kept studying nipponium in a laboratory directly adjacent to his office. But he didn’t have access to the same high-quality lab equipment that was in Ramsay’s lab — namely, an x-ray spectrometer. There wasn’t a single x-ray spectrometer in all of Japan, actually, and without that, it was impossible to confirm his discovery.

The university finally procured one in 1930, but it was just a moment too late. Ogawa died that year. His results were never officially published, and he was largely forgotten… until the close of the twentieth century. A professor emeritus at Tohoku University uncovered some of Ogawa’s work and verified that he had, in fact, discovered a then-unknown element.1 Of course, by then, element 75 was already up on the board as rhenium — not nipponium.2 3

It would be a little tragic if that were the end of the story. There actually is a second part to the story of nipponium, kind of4 — but we’ll have to save that for another episode. It might not be fair, but today we’ll be talking about the team that discovered element 75 for the second time.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re pairing up with rhenium.

Please welcome back to the show Walter Noddack, Ida Tacke, and Otto Berg! This trio of German researchers last appeared in episode 43, Technetium. They were the scientists who claimed to have discovered that element, which they called masurium, but their blustery confidence wasn’t enough to get anyone to look past their sloppy research.5

Less uncertain was their 1925 discovery of element 75 — not coincidentally, right below technetium. It’s one of the rarest metals on earth, so they had to comb through 660 kilgrams of molybdenite just to isolate one gram of it. The name masurium had come from the name of the region Walter Noddack hailed from, so in the same vein, they named this element after the Rhineland, where Ida Tacke came from. Those two places also happened to be the sites of major German victories during World War I, so there was a whiff of lingering nationalism to these names. It made the scientific community rather uneasy, but much like Paul-Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s intentions in naming gallium, nobody could prove anything. Masurium was disqualified, but rhenium was here to stay.6

de Boisbaudran spent the rest of his life swearing up and down that he hadn’t meant to name gallium after himself, but the Germans did not disavow the coincidental nationalism behind their elemental naming scheme. In fact, you might remember that Walter Noddack tried to intimidate Emilio Segre by bursting into his lab in full Nazi regalia.

It’s unfortunate, especially because there are so few well-known women from this era of chemistry. Ida Tacke is one of them, and she was a brilliant, confident woman who never let anyone mistakenly assume that she was an assistant to Walter and Otto — they were equals. Sadly, such proximity to fascist ideology tends to ruin one’s suitability as a role model. With that in mind, the story of the Noddacks is a fascinating one, so perhaps we can examine their story without extolling it.

I call them the Noddacks because the year after they isolated rhenium, Walter and Ida wed and she took his name. They didn’t see themselves so much as a married couple, though. In amazingly German fashion, they called themselves an arbeitsgemeinschaft, or “working group.” Their partnership was more egalitarian than most others of the time. Either one could take the spotlight, they received equal credit in publications, and one’s name was never said without the other’s being uttered in the same breath.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world was not quite so progressive. Germany was in shambles after World War I, and the economic crash of 1929 dealt another devastating blow. In 1932, Germany passed a law that strongly encouraged women to leave the workforce, so that men would have less competition for jobs. Ida skirted this law by working as an unpaid collaborator — sort of a Pyrrhic victory, but the work was more important to her than the money.

And the work she performed was cutting-edge. In 1934, Enrico Fermi proposed that elements 93 and 94 could possibly be synthesized by bombarding uranium (element 92) with neutrons. Ida Noddack published the only skeptical response to this theory. “When heavy nuclei are bombarded by neutrons,” she wrote, “it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element.”

That casually, she became the first scientist to propose the idea of nuclear fission. And no one took it seriously.7

Partly this was because of the shenanigans she and Walter pulled with element 43, but not exclusively. Enrico Fermi had considerable star power among scientists of the day. In comparison, Ida Noddack was seen by many as just a chemist’s wife (no matter how loudly she and Walter objected). Her idea flew in the face of conventional wisdom at the time, too. All that combined, and the response to Noddack’s paper couldn’t even be classified as indignant outrage. It was just crickets.

It’s certainly an injustice, but in the grand scheme of things, maybe it was for the best. The rest of the world’s best and brightest didn’t come ’round to the idea until four years later. If German scientists pursued the idea any further, it’s conceivable that Nazi Germany could have acquired an atomic bomb by 1940. Who knows how the twentieth century plays out in that version of history?

Germany moved pretty far into France even without the aid of nuclear weapons, and the Noddacks set up shop in the newly captured University of Strasbourg in Alsace. Just as easily, when France was liberated in 1944, they shuffled off to Turkey. A couple years later, Walter underwent an official process known as “denazification” and the couple moved to Bamberg, where he took on a teaching position.8

They continued in their work, but the Noddacks’ lives were much quieter than in prior decades, when they were making great discoveries and were nominated three times for Nobel Prizes. Walter founded a geochemistry institute, where Ida worked — again in an unpaid position. She also performed medical research and was herself the subject of some, too, due to problems she had with kidney stones.

For all their lives, they were fiercely dedicated to each other — maybe a little too much. In 1960, she traveled to Hamburg for medical treatment. Walter stayed behind. When he was unable to reach her by telephone, he feared the worst, and he just couldn’t tolerate the thought. He was found the next morning collapsed on his office floor following a heart attack, and he died a short time later at the hospital.9

It’s ironic in the most tragic sense, because Ida was fine. She actually lived for many more years, and even contributed a paper that was read at the Periodic Table Centennial celebration in Leningrad. She died in 1978 at the age of 82.

The Noddacks stand in sharp contrast to most other husband-and-wife scientific pairs of the day, especially their fellow Germans, Fritz Haber and Clara Immerwahr. In fact, rather than anyone else from the realm of science, the most comparable famous couple might be Romeo and Juliet.

Rhenium itself is no stranger to strong bonds, either.

For a long time, it was thought that the strongest bond two atoms could share was a triple bond. In such an arrangement, the two atoms share six electrons between them — and this makes them very difficult to pry apart. The most common form of nitrogen exists as two atoms sharing a triple bond, and cracking that bond was the scientific breakthrough that originally put Fritz Haber on the map.

In 1964, American chemist F. Albert Cotton showed that two metal atoms could do one better by coaxing two atoms of rhenium to share eight total electrons — a quadruple bond. Later, quintuple bonds were discovered, and molybdenum is even capable of forming sextuple bonds, but Re2 blazed the trail. This combination is called “dirhenium” — stifle your giggles, please — and it made history for a second time in 2020, when researchers captured images of rhenium atoms dancing down a carbon nanotube, bonding and breaking and bonding again. Such a thing had never been directly observed before.10 11

That doesn’t help you, though, and as we said before, rhenium is very rare. IT’s used as a catalyst in some cars, especially Rolls Royce, but that’s probably no more accessible for you than a state-of-the-art chemistry lab.

The easiest way to source rhenium might be from vintage photography flash-bulbs, the kind that were single-use. GE used to produce some that were packaged in a box claiming that these were new flashbulbs “with the GUARANTEED rhenium igniter.”12 These can be found pretty readily online, but as time goes on, they’ll only become more rare. I recommend you snatch one while you still can, especially if you grabbed a tungsten-filament light bulb after last episode. Together, those two would make a fine pair.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To see video of rhenium atoms do-si-doing for yourself, visit episodic table dot com slash R e.

Next time, we’ll meet the wizard of osmium.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you if you’re having trouble getting a hold of a loved one, start by taking a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Sources

  1. Yoshihara HK. Nipponium as a new element (Z=75) separated by the Japanese chemist, Masataka Ogawa: a scientific and science historical re-evaluation. Proceedings of the Japan Academy. Series B, Physical and Biological Sciences. 2008 ;84(7):232-245. DOI: 10.2183/pjab.84.232.
  2. The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side, this page. Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa, Mary Virginia Orna, 2014.
  3. The Enduring Crafts Of Japan: 33 Living National Treasures, via Florida Institute Of Technology Evans Library. Tsune Sugimura, 1968.
  4. De Gruyter, Names And Symbols Of The Elements With Atomic Numbers 113, 115, 117, And 118 (IUPAC Recommendations 2016)
  5. The Royal Society Journal Of The History Of Science, A Tale Of Oblivion: Ida Noddack And The ‘Universal Abundance’ Of Matter. Gildo Magalhães Santos, September 17, 2014.
  6. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Ida Noddack. Erik Greggerson, last updated September 20, 2020.
  7. ChemEurope.com, Ida Noddack.
  8. She Thought It, Ida Tacke Noddack.
  9. Ida And Walter Noddack Through Better And Worse: An Arbeitsgemeinschaft In Chemistry. Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Annette Lykknes, April 25, 2012.
  10. Smithsonian Magazine, Watch First-Ever Footage Of Atoms Forming And Breaking Bonds. Theresa Machemer, January 22, 2020.
  11. ScienceAdvances, Imaging An Unsupported Metal-Metal BondIn Dirhenium Molecules At The Atomic Scale. Kecheng Cao et. al., January 17, 2020.
  12. PeriodicTable.com, Rhenium. Theodore Gray.

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