On the evening of March 23, 1962, Neil Bartlett, working alone in the Chemistry Department at UBC, changed the face of chemistry. Until that day all chemistry textbooks were written with the fixed idea that the Group VIII elements He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe, and Rn, the Rare Gases, were chemically inert. In fact, they were often referred to as the Inert Gases. That led to the concept that atoms interact to achieve the ‘desirable’ state of a filled electron shell. In other words our discussion of valence was tied into the inertness of the filled electron shells of the Inert Gases.
Bartlett had previously shown that oxygen gas could be oxidized by platinum hexafluoride to afford O2PtF6 and had come to the realization that the “inertness” of the Rare Gases might be a result of the reagents employed rather than a law of nature. Consequently he mixed xenon gas with platinum hexafluoride and obtained a solid that had the formula XePtF6. This was formulated as a salt of Xe+ and PtF6– and the octet rule was no longer inviolable. The actual compound was later shown to be XeFPtF5 but the outcome was unchanged; all existing textbooks had to be rewritten and all subsequent ones had to adapt to this new reality.
Bartlett went on to develop this unprecedented chemistry at UBC and elsewhere: other individuals and groups have also contributed to the general research area which now comprises a substantial body of work, and it is almost commonplace to read about compounds of the rare gases.
On Tuesday May 23rd 2006 the American Chemical Society and the Canadian Society for Chemistry recognized the work of Professor Neil Bartlett as an International Historic Chemical Landmark. Professor Bartlett, working at UBC, demonstrated the first reaction of a noble gas by combining xenon with platinum hexafluoride.
Neil Bartlett was born September 15, 1932 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom. One of his earliest, formative memories was of a laboratory experiment he conducted in a grammar school class as a twelve year old. In the experiment, he mixed a solution of aqueous ammonia (colorless) with copper sulfate (blue) in water, causing a reaction which would eventually produce “beautiful, well-formed crystals.” From that moment “I was hooked,” writes Bartlett, who yearned to know why the transformation took place. He could not have known that the event would vaguely foreshadow his famous experiment decades later in which he produced the world’s first noble gas compound following a similarly stunning chemical reaction.
He began to immerse himself in chemistry to the extent that he built his own makeshift laboratory in his parents’ home, complete with flasks and beakers and chemicals he purchased at a local supply store. That curiosity carried over into academic success and eventually earned him a scholarship for his undergraduate education.
Bartlett attended King’s College in Durham (U.K.), where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1954 and his doctorate in 1958. That year Bartlett was appointed a lecturer in chemistry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where he remained until 1966, eventually reaching the rank of full professor. In 1966 he became a professor of chemistry at Princeton University while also serving as a member of the research staff at Bell Laboratories. In 1969, he joined the University of California, Berkeley, as a professor of chemistry, retiring in 1993. From 1969 to 1999 he also served as a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Bartlett became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2000.
Bartlett’s fame goes beyond the inert gas research to include the general field of fluorine chemistry. He held a special interest in the stabilization of unusually high oxidation states of elements and applying these states to advance chemistry. Bartlett is also known for his contributions toward understanding thermodynamic, structural, and bonding considerations of chemical reactions. He helped develop novel synthetic approaches, including a low-temperature route to thermodynamically unstable binary fluorides, including NiF4 and AgF3. He discovered and characterized many new fluorine compounds and also produced many new metallic graphite compounds, including some that show promise as powerful battery materials.
[Biography from Sampson, M. (2006) Beginnings. Neil Bartlett and the Reactive Noble Gases. American Chemical Society.]