Sept/Oct 2010

Historical Metallurgy

Pyotr Romanovich Bagrationi (1818-1876): a pioneer hydrometallurgist

By Mariam Melashvil and Fathi Habashi

Pyotr Romanovich BagrationiAlthough the solvent action of alkali cyanide on gold seems to have been known to Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) as early as 17831, it was the work of Pyotr Romanovich Bagrationi in 1843 that paved the way for the development of the cyanidation process for treating gold-bearing ore.

Prince Pyotr Romanovich Bagrationi was a descendant of Georgian kings. In 1783, with his country under constant attack by its Moslem neighbours, Georgian King Erekle II (1720-1798) established an alliance with Catherine the Great of Russia. However, years later, on December 18, 1800, Russian Tsar Paul I annexed Georgia. That same year, Giorgi XII, the last of the Bagrationi kings, died.

Most of the Georgian nobility entered into the Russian military service. Among them was Major General Roman Bagrationi (1778-1834) and Pyotr Bagrationi (1765-1812), Pyotr Romanovich Bagrationi’s father and uncle, respectively. In 1827, Roman Bagrationi was assigned to the position of assistant to the governor of Tbilisi and, therefore, relocated to that city; his son, Pyotr, was only nine years old at the time. Five years later, the Georgian nobility was betrayed by one of its own. The conspiracy resulted in numerous arrests and subsequent exile to Siberia. Nikoloz Baratashvili wrote a satirical poem about it, which his classmate, Pyotr Bagrationi distributed. Due to their young age (they were only 14 and 15 years old), they were not jailed; however, they were punished severely.

Pyotr Bagrationi then headed to St. Petersburg in 1833 and entered military school. In 1842, with a military degree in hand, he started working in physics and chemistry. The following year, he was awarded the Order of St. Stanislav (Third Class) for his achievement in galvanic examination.

Galvanic cellWhile conducting galvanic experiments in the Laboratory of Physics at St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (now the Russian Academy of Sciences) under academician Moritz Hermann von Jacobi2 (1801-1874), Bagrationi discovered that a saturated solution of potassium cyanide left in a gold-plated cup for one week resulted in the dissolution of the gold from the cup. Following this discovery, he prepared gold powder by precipitating gold from its chloride solution using iron sulphate and found that the powder quickly dissolved in the cyanide solution. He also noted that air agitation and heating accelerated the dissolution and that potassium ferrocyanide dissolved gold, albeit at a slower rate.

Bagrationi published his work entitled “Sur la properiété que possédent les cyanures potassiques et ferrosopotassiques de dissoudre les metaux” in Bulletin de 1’Académie des Sciences (Classe Physico - Mathematique), St. Petersburg, Volume 2, in 1843 and 1844. The paper was also translated into German and published in Zeitschrift für praktische Chemie. Although Franz Elsner (1802-1874) of Berlin carried on the research, it was John Stewart MacArthur (1856-1920) who applied this knowledge to gold ores in 1887.

Bagrationi invented the first dry galvanic cell in 1843 [pictured, right] and began examining its reactions. This led to his publishing a monograph about it a couple of years later. The cell consisted of copper and zinc cylinders placed one inside the other in clay or any nonmetallic vessel, and the space in between was filled with sand soaked with an ammonium chloride solution. This produced a weak but continuous current that was used as a power supply for the first telegraph line between St. Petersburg and Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar’s Village), at Leichtenberg’s plant, and in various public and private laboratories. The cell itself is a modification of Daniell’s Cell, an invention by British chemist John Frederic Daniell (1790-1845) in 1836.

In 1844, Bagrationi was sent on a scientific mission to Germany, France and England to study galvanic currents for engineering purposes. He was assigned to the position of aide to Maximilian Leichtenberg, Duke of Bavaria, the following year and spent the next seven years abroad; Leichtenberg had been made a manager of the Institute of Mining in Russia. During this time, Leichtenberg published his works on galvanic currents and its further application, and established a galvanoplastic plant in St. Petersburg. He died in 1852. Bagrationi, who was awarded the Prize of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences two years earlier, was then called back to St. Petersburg and later promoted to the rank of major-general.

In 1862, Bagrationi was made governor of the Tver province, where he took part in establishing social services: building a dam to prevent flooding; building a new railway; setting up a telegraphy system; erecting a library and museum; conducting geological surveys; etc. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-general three years later and in 1870, he was made governor of the Baltic countries Courland, Livonia and Estonia. He died suddenly during a business trip to St. Petersburg in 1876, at the age of 58.

1 According to J. W. Mellor, Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic and Theoretical Chemistry, Vol. 3, p. 500 (1923), the solvent action of aqueous solution of alkali cyanides on gold, silver and copper was noted by C.W. Scheele in his memoir, De material tingente coerulei Berolinensis (1783). It should also be mentioned that Scheele discovered hydrogen cyanide.
2  Russian style: Boris Semyonovich Jacobi

Suggested readings
Bagration, P. (1844). Ueber die Eigenschaft des Cyankaliums und des Cyaneisenkaliums, die Metalle aufzulösen. Zeitschrift für praktische Chemie, 31, 367-370.
Elsner, F. (1844). Beobachtungen über das Verhalten regulinischer Metalle in einer wässrigen Lösung von Cyankalium. Zeitschrift für praktische Chemie, 31, 441-446.
MacArthur, J. S., Forrest, R. W., & Forrest, W. (1887). Process for Obtaining Gold and Silver from Ores.  British Patent 14,174.
Parkadze, V. (1956). Peter Bagrationi [in Georgian], Tekhnika da Shroma, Tbilisi, Georgia.
Petrushevski, F. F. (1874). Course of Observative Physics, Saint Petersburg.
Petrushevski, F. F. (1876). Experimental and Practical Course of Electricity, Magnetism, and Galvanism, Saint Petersburg.
von Jacobi,  M. H. (1843). Bulletin de 1’Académie des Sciences (Classe Physico - Mathematique), St. Petersburg.

Mariam Melashvili, Department of Metals and Materials Engineering, University of British Columbia, and Fathi Habashi, Department of Mining, Metallurgical, and Materials Engineering, Laval University

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