Cleveite [not Clevite] and helium
By Wendy L Kirk, on 11 January 2013
Curating one’s office always brings to light something interesting, and recently I came across an article written by one of our Geology graduates, Danny Howard, who stayed on for a period in Earth Sciences to work on the Johnston-Lavis collection of minerals and rocks. However, he found time to write for UCL News “Private View”, a series of articles about objects in the UCL collections. For the 2004 issue, he wrote about the specimen of cleveite in the labelled glass jar shown here. I remember finding this specimen a year or two previously in the Geology sub-basement store – as you do – when burrowing through the collections with Jayne Dunn, currently the UCL Collections Manager. Quite how it came to be there, I don’t know. Many years previously – maybe a decade or two – the store had belonged to the Chemistry department, but it had long been cleared out and shelved to receive geology specimens. Nonetheless, there it was on a shelf that day, neither of us having knowingly seen it before.
Neither of us had heard of cleveite at the time. The “Organic Laboratory” label contained the hand-written description “Original clevite from which He was first made N. Collie”. Further investigation showed that Norman Collie, a qualified chemist, joined UCL in 1887 as William Ramsay’s assistant, having previously taught at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. (http://rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/obits/4/12/329). Becoming Professor of Organic Chemistry in 1896, he succeeded William Ramsay to become Director of Laboratories (http://www.chem.ucl.ac.uk/resources/history/people/collie.html ). Ramsay was a world-renowned scientist who discovered five of the noble gases – helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon – between 1894 and 1898, work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 (Davies, 2012). So what is cleveite? It transpires that cleveite is a radioactive mineral, a variety of uraninite (UO2), containing up to 10% of the rare earth elements (Y, Ce etc). Named in honour or Per Theodore Cleve (1840-1905), a Swedish chemist and mineralogist, it was first described by Nordensköld in 1878 from the Garta Feldspar quarry, Arendal, Norway (http://www.mindat.org/min-29957.html). Helium was first observed in 1868 as yellow spectral emission lines by a French astronomer, Jules Janssen. Also observed by the English astronomer Norman Lockyer, it was named helium after the Greek name for the sun helios. Initially thought to exist only in the sun, it was not until 1895 that terrestrial helium was discovered by Sir William Ramsay, using a sample of cleveite, part of which, if the label is to be believed, is now in the very bottle discovered in our sub-basement.
Ramsay published his findings in the Journal of the Geological Society in 1895. In fact, helium had already been extracted from the mineral uraninite by the Amercian geochemist Hillebrand, but he had not correctly identified the gases extracted. With Lord Kelvin in the Chair as President of the Geological Society, Ramsay’s paper was read on April 25th, having been received a month previously. He described cleveite as uranate of lead, containing rare earths. He boiled it with sulphuric acid, initially evolving 20cc of gas. From this, he extracted all known gases except for argon, and collected the remainder in test tubes. On examining the spectrum, he realised that a new gas was present in addition to the argon, as “remarkably brilliant yellow lines”. Subsequent wavelength determination showed this to be helium. According to Subhadra Das, a UCL Museums and Collections staff member who also researched this specimen as an MA Museums Studies student, Ramsay’s notebook records the supplier as Mr Gregory of 88 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, and the cost of the first gram purchased as 3/6, a princely sum for the “morsel” received . Perhaps the dealer was James Gregory, who founded the mineral dealers Gregory, Bottley and Lloyd in 1858? Contact with the present owners, Mr & Mrs Lloyd, confirmed that the premises were indeed in Charlotte Street.
A clue as to the field location of the specimen is given by Ramsay’s description of the cleveite: “…………. imbedded in felspathic rock, and forms black nodules and veins in the light reddish feldspar. A considerable quantity of the pure mineral could be picked out; but it was found more advantageous to powder the whole rock and to boil it with dilute sulphuric acid……. Under this treatment the mineral rapidly disintegrates, and an abundant evolution of gas takes place, even in the cold. The gas is most conveniently collected by the device shown in the accompanying woodcut.” So it seems that this is a historically very important specimen, and it is now on display in the entrance to the Chemistry Department. A little additional research for this blog has given a strong suggestion that the cleveite may have come from the type Gasta Feldspar quarry of Arendal, Norway. A quick look at the literature suggests that it was not found elsewhere until after Ramsay’s experiments, but only digging deeper, and learning Norwegian, will help answer that question.