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  • Writer's pictureTim Coyne

Purple Reign: How the Desire of the Color of Royalty Launched pH Chemistry


The oldest documented use of purple dye for royalty dates back to ancient Phoenicia, where the dye was extracted from sea snails. The dyeing process was incredibly time-consuming and expensive, which made purple garments a symbol of wealth and status. It was worn by the Caesars of Rome to the Medieval Kings. All the way up to the Renaissance these same labor intensive processes were used, and purple garments continued to be a status symbol, worn primarily by the nobility and the clergy.


In the 1500s a group of Spanish explorers led by the conquistador Jean de Béthencourt set out to explore the newly acquired Canary islands. During their explorations they encountered the indigenous Guanches, who were known for their use of natural dyes to color their clothes and textiles. They had developed a deep knowledge of the plants and materials in their environment. One of the plants they used to create a red dye was a lichen called Roccella tinctoria, which grew abundantly on the rocky cliffs and mountainsides of the islands. The Spanish were immediately intrigued by the potential of Roccella tinctoria, and they began to experiment with it themselves. They discovered that the lichen could also be used to produce a purple dye, which was still highly prized in Europe. The Spanish began to export Roccella tinctoria to Europe, where it quickly became one of the most valuable commodities on the market.


Fast forward to the 17th century, when a German chemist named Johann Rudolf Glauber became interested in the properties of the purple dye produced from Roccella tinctoria. Whether he spent hours in his lab researching or perhaps he just spilled some vinegar on his purple garb and noticed a change in the color. Whatever the case he discovered that the substance was sensitive to changes in pH, and that it changed color from purple to red when exposed to an acidic environment. He named the substance "turnsole," and began to develop methods for using turnsole to test the pH of various materials, including wines, vinegars, and other food products. Glauber's work with turnsole was groundbreaking, and it helped to lay the foundation for litmus paper and the pH scale. But without millenniums of immense interest of the royalty purple dye, such a discovery may not have been possible.


Today, pH is used in a wide range of scientific fields, from agriculture to medicine to Water treatment. The pH level of water is an essential parameter to consider in water treatment. This is because the pH of water can impact the effectiveness of the treatment process and the safety of the water for consumption.

Water treatment plants typically aim to achieve a pH level between 6.5 and 8.5, which is considered optimal for safe and effective treatment. If the pH level of the water is too low or too high, it can interfere with the chemical reactions that occur during treatment, potentially leading to incomplete removal of contaminants or the formation of harmful byproducts. For example, in the process of disinfection, water treatment plants may use chemicals like chlorine to kill harmful microorganisms. However, the effectiveness of chlorine in killing microorganisms is strongly influenced by the pH level of the water. If the pH is too low or too high, it can reduce the effectiveness of the disinfection process, potentially leaving harmful microorganisms in the water.

Similarly, in the process of coagulation and flocculation, chemicals are added to the water to help remove suspended particles and impurities. The effectiveness of these chemicals is also strongly influenced by the pH level of the water. If the pH is not within the optimal range, the chemicals may not work as effectively, leading to incomplete removal of contaminants.

In addition to impacting the treatment process, the pH level of water can also impact the safety of the water for consumption. If the pH is too low or too high, it can cause corrosion in pipes, which can lead to leaching of metals like lead or copper into the water. This can have negative health effects on consumers who drink the water.

Water treatment plants must carefully monitor and adjust the pH of the water to ensure that it is within the optimal range for safe and effective treatment. If you need any help with your pH adjustment or need to select a better chemical to match your plant pH, please reach out to a Sterling Water Specialist to help.


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