Fluorine Chemistry

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It's been called the Tyrannosaurus Rex of chemicals,footnote 1 or the Hell-Cat of chemistry.footnote 2 By any name, fluorine as an element is not polite; it has a voracious appetite for grabbing electrons from other atoms. By itself, it is a pungent and poisonous gas of diatomic molecules: F2 . In combination with other atoms, fluorine is a very versatile actor. It can form compounds that explode, or it can make molecules that are as inert as you please--like Teflon, a familiar fluorocarbon that keeps food from sticking to cookware.

Fluorine compounds are widely used in industry, and many of the compounds and processes in commercial use today are based on the pioneering work of UW chemistry professor George H. Cady.footnote 2 In early work he determined the physical characteristics of fluorine and refined methods for its production.

In 1948, Cady and colleagues published the first of a series of papers on the hypofluorite compounds--those containing the oxygen-fluorine group, -OF. One of these, trifluoromethyl hypofluorite, CF3OF, he prepared by catalytic fluorination of methanol, CH3OH (wood alcohol). Under carefully controlled conditions, CF3OF and similar compounds could be converted to a whole family of industrially important fluorinated solvents.

Cady achieved the first synthesis and characterization of xenon hexafluoride. The accomplishment is of particular interest to chemists, because as one of the noble gases (such as helium, neon, argon), xenon ordinarily shuns other elements, refusing to take part in any kind of chemical bond. But in this case, xenon is not as recalcitrant in its chemical behavior as fluorine is aggressive.

While on leave from the University of Washington during the Second World War, as a group leader in the Manhattan Project, Cady and colleagues developed a method of catalytic fluorination which provided the capability to produce a vast number of fluorocarbons: compounds having a carbon-carbon backbone with fluorine atoms attached.

Cady's catalytic process worked by passing hydrocarbon vapors and a dilute stream of fluorine gas over the catalyst silver difluoride. Because Cady's procedure was mild, the original carbon skeleton or ring structure was preserved in the catalytic process allowing fluorine atoms to be suspended from it like charms on a bracelet. The first fluorocarbon lubricating oils were produced by his team in this way.

  1. "The Periodic Table," Media Guild, 11722 Sorrento Valley Road, Suite E., San Diego, CA, 92121.
  2. The author gratefully acknowledges Dr. Jean'ne M. Shreeve, Vice Provost for Research and Professor of Chemistry, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, for information she provided about Dr. Cady's work.

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