Guest post by JessTheChemist
’The field of scientific abstraction encompasses independent kingdoms of ideas and of experiments and within these, rulers whose fame outlasts the centuries. But they are not the only kings in science. He also is a king who guides the spirit of his contemporaries by knowledge and creative work, by teaching and research in the field of applied science, and who conquers for science provinces which have only been raided by craftsmen.’ – Fritz Haber
This month marks the one hundred year anniversary of the first use of chemical warfare as a strategic tool in battle. Fritz Haber was heavily involved in, and a proponent of, gassing with chlorine as a method of warfare. Whilst his work in this area may have resulted in huge loss of life, he also changed the world for the better through the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process.
The Haber-Bosch process, named after Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, was one of the first industrial chemical processes that I learned about at high school. At the time, I found it incredibly interesting that some pressure and some heat, with some iron thrown in for good measure, could turn nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas into malodourous ammonia. The reaction had been known before but the low yields and slow reaction times made it an unattractive prospect for an industrial process. Haber realised that the addition of high temperature and pressure with an iron catalyst could make this a highly efficient process. Haber won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1918 for his identification of the process, while Bosch won the prize in 1931 for his work in scaling up the process.
With cheap access to ammonia, fertilizers were became more readily available and, as such, millions of people around the world benefit from the availability of good quality crops. But the availability of ammonia also led to an proliferation in the use of nitrate-based explosives, as Wilhelm Ostwald discovered that ammonia could be converted relatively simply into nitric acid and nitrates using a platinum catalyst (the Ostwald Process).
Haber’s father owned a dye pigments and paints business, so it is not a surprise that he entered into the field of chemistry. After attending university, a brief period working for his father and various apprenticeships, he took up an academic position at the University of Karlsruhe.
As with the other laureates I’ve researched on this blog, Haber is connected to a number of highly influential scientists, including Walther Nernst, his closest academic relative,. Nernst helped to develop the modern field of physical chemistry, including electrochemistry and thermodynamics. All undergraduate chemists should recognise his name from learning all about the Nernst equation! He won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1920 for his work into thermochemistry. Through Nernst, Haber is also connected to Irving Langmuir who won the Nobel prize in 1932 for his research on surface chemistry.
Haber is related to Adolf von Baeyer, an organic chemist who is famous for the synthesis of indigo. In 1905 he was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for his research in the field of organic chemistry, particularly organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds. There is also an academic connection between Haber and Bosch, although they worked independently from one another on the same chemical process. Once Haber had developed the Haber process, it was purchased by the German chemical company BASF, where Carl Bosch managed to scale up the reaction to the industrial level, resulting in the Haber-Bosch process.
Whether you believe Fritz Haber is a great man or not, it cannot be said that his (and Bosch’s) finding was not a great one.