Two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, devised chlorine gas weapons that were used against French and British troops, in the First World War. Haber’s first wife committed suicide. Then they went on to invent new forms of explosives. During the Second World War, they worked for Hitler, developing a coal based substitute for petroleum that fuelled Nazi planes and trucks.
I had never heard of them until last year. I suspect you, the reader, are reading about them for the first time.
These two men are my heroes - more than Einstien, Salk, Fleming, Bardeen, Rutherford.
In 1900, the world had two billion people. In 2013, it has seven billion. How did this population explosion happen? Why has there been no famine due to food shortage? All famines in the last two hundred years have been because of wars, lack of access or poor administration. Food deficit has NEVER been an issue.
80% of the food humans eat, by weight, comes from only 12 species of plants – rice, wheat, corn, barley, sorghum, soybean, manioc, potato, sweet potato, sugarcane, sugar-beet and banana. They need the right soil and water, but also a vital fertilizing element – nitrogen. The Earth’s atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, but in this form, plants cannot use it. They need something called fixed nitrogen, which is produced by lightning, natural nitrates in the soil, animal dung, decaying plant material and certain legumes.
Crucially, the amount of fixed nitrogen available by these natural processes limits the amount of food crops
humans can grow, regardless of the land and water available. In the 19th century, this problem was circumvented by expanding the area of land under cultivation and utilizing mountains of guano (bat and bird dung) and saltpeter discovered in South America. Europe imported guano from South America like they imported spices and clothes from India, silk and tea from China and slaves from Africa – in ship loads.
In the twentieth century, these South American supplies ran out. So, nitrogen shortage threatened food supply; unless somebody discovered a way to manufacture artificial fertilizer, using the nitrogen in the atmosphere. This is exactly what Haber and Bosch did. They invented the Haber-Bosch process, ammonia fertilizers, massive factories that would produce them in vast quantities.
They won Nobel prizes for this – Haber in 1920 and Bosch in 1932. France was hunting for Haber as a war criminal, and he was hiding in Switzerland, but after he was awarded the Nobel, France gave up the hunt. For the next decade, France and England used their armies to try to steal the industrial secret that the Haber-Bosch process was; but it was too complex to be copied or stolen and too vital to be destroyed. The great fear was that it not only produced ammonia fertilizer, but also explosives for Hitler’s army.
Today all nitrogen fertilizer is produced by the Haber-Bosch process. Four billion people owe their existence to their invention, but are ignorant that such men lived and what they gave the world.