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Fritz Haber fixed nitrogen

Summary:
Fritz Haber, who was born on December 9th, 1868, made it possible for us to pluck useful stuff out of thin air. Specifically, he developed the chemical process that enables us to turn atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen found in natural gas into ammonia and nitrates. He joined the industrialist, Carl Bosch, of BASF to scale this up into an industrial process – the Haber Bosch process - that could manufacture huge quantities of ammonia and nitrates to use for fertilizers and explosives. One of my vivid memories from school chemistry classes was the huge chart on the laboratory wall of the Haber process.The process fed in atmospheric nitrogen combined with methane as a source of hydrogen under high temperatures and pressures using iron-based catalysts. It revolutionized industrial

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Fritz Haber, who was born on December 9th, 1868, made it possible for us to pluck useful stuff out of thin air. Specifically, he developed the chemical process that enables us to turn atmospheric nitrogen and the hydrogen found in natural gas into ammonia and nitrates. He joined the industrialist, Carl Bosch, of BASF to scale this up into an industrial process – the Haber Bosch process - that could manufacture huge quantities of ammonia and nitrates to use for fertilizers and explosives. One of my vivid memories from school chemistry classes was the huge chart on the laboratory wall of the Haber process.

The process fed in atmospheric nitrogen combined with methane as a source of hydrogen under high temperatures and pressures using iron-based catalysts. It revolutionized industrial chemistry because prior to it, fertilizer and chemical feedstocks had depended on limited natural supplies of chemicals such as sodium and potassium nitrate, found notably in Chile. During World War I, the Allies embargoed Chilean nitrates to limit Germany's access to explosives. After the Haber process was introduced, the work-force that mined Chile's nitrates dropped by three-quarters, and their price more than halved.

Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918, and today half the world is fed on crops grown with fertilizers produced by his method. The extra food it makes possible has saved billions from starvation.

Yet Haber also pioneered chemical warfare, and in World War I developed the use of chlorine and other poisons to attack allied troops, especially at the second battle of Ypres, at which he personally helped supervise the chemical attacks that caused 67,000 casualties. His reputation suffered in consequence, and when he visited Cambridge after the war, Rutherford declined his handshake. The institute he helped establish developed a cyanide fumigant, Zyklon A, to free grain stores of pests, but Haber, as a Jew, left in 1933 as the Nazis rose to power, and died early in 1934, long before Zyklon B was used to murder millions.

Fritz Haber thus joins the ranks of those whose work has benefitted humanity, but which was compounded with a dark side that aided wickedness. Alfred Nobel made dynamite, but his prizes have inspired people to improve the human condition. Wernher von Braun invented the V2 rockets launched by Hitler, but his later work enabled the US to deter Soviet aggression, and he inflicted a great morale defeat on the Soviets when he put Americans on the moon. Deng Xiaoping presided over the Tiananmen Square massacre, but his rejection of socialism and embrace of capitalist methods lifted more than a billion people out of subsistence and starvation.

The bad that is done or made possible by such flawed figures is rightly condemned, but the good that is done or made possible by them should stand alongside it when they are judged.

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