This year marks a very special anniversary for the noble gases – it’s 50 years since the synthesis of xenon hexafluoroplatinate (Xe+[PtF6]). What’s so special about that? Well, before xenon hexafluoroplatinate everyone thought the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, radon) were completely inert.

It’s one of the earliest things you’re taught in school chemistry lessons. The noble gases don’t react because their highest energy ‘shell’ of electrons is full – they don’t need to share electrons to feel complete. Thus they reside lonely and aloof in their own little world at the far end of the periodic table.

But in 1962 UK chemist Neil Bartlett coaxed them out to play with the other elements while while working with fluorine. The key was platinum hexafluoride (PtF6), an incredibly powerful oxidising agent that Bartlett and his colleagues had shown would react with oxygen gas. The first ionisation potential of xenon is almost the same as that of oxygen, thought Bartlett. So why not give it a shot?

An explosion of interest followed, and 50 years later we’re still making new noble gas compounds. And to celebrate, the University of British Columbia in Canada, the institution at which Bartlett made his breakthrough, is hosting a special seminar on 23 March. Guest speakers include Derek Lohmann, who worked with Bartlett on the synthesis and use of platinum hexafluoride. He told me that at the time the team wasn’t wholly aware of what an important milestone it was working towards: ‘The initial feeling was one of disbelief and then euphoria.’ It took a very powerful reagent, he explained. ‘Like fluorine itself and many other compounds of fluorine, platinum hexafluoride is a very reactive species owing to its ability to attract electrons.’

Andrew Turley

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