Scientist Highlight: Karl Fischer (Joseph Karl Anton Fischer)

Born in Pasing, a suburb of the German city of Munich in 1901, Joseph Karl Anton Fischer was a chemist in the making. As a child he used his bedroom as a laboratory, where he began experimenting from an early age. He even prepared nitroglycerin which, although burned well, unfortunately (or fortunately!) failed to detonate due to his final product being heavily contaminated with glycerol.

Beyond chemistry, Fischer was also fascinated with microscopy. He built his own microtome for sample preparation using razor blades, and his preparation was of such high quality that he was able to earn money for his family during the turbulent economic hyperinflation of the 1920’s.

He attended one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Leipzig, and was awarded his PhD in 1925 for his work investigating the effect of magnesium oxide on the vulcanisation of rubber. He went to work within industry, finding a job with the company created by Lazăr Edeleanu, a famous Romanian Chemist who was the first to synthesise amphetamine. Fischer was involved in the process of sulphur dioxide refining, which was rapidly spreading in popularity across the continent.

Although unclear as to why Fischer moved towards analytical chemistry, water contamination was a major issue within the oil industry. Methods for breaking down the resultant intractable emulsions from water contamination were already in use but was only effective with large volumes of water. This is where the prior research into sulphur dioxide came into play, as Robert Bunsen discovered in 1853.

The Bunsen Reaction (2H2O + SO2 + I2 → H2SO4 + 2HI) – describes water, sulphur dioxide, and iodine reacting to form sulfuric acid and hydrogen iodide)

Fischer found that the addition of a base (aniline or pyridine) pushed the equilibrium sharply to the right. He outlined his revolutionary and simple method for titration, employing iodine (I2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and pyridine (C5H5N) in his 1937 paper. No patent was taken out by Fischer nor the company, so the information entered the public domain; within two years (and with some revision to the stoichiometry) the method was widely adopted for moisture determination across a variety of fields!

There has been some adaption to the original method since then, especially around the development of an automated method for Karl Fischer analysis. However, for both coulometric and volumetric methods of titration for water determination, Karl Fischer continues to be used frequently across a wide range of industries to this day.

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