Things I Wish I Learned Sooner: The Man To Whom You Probably Owe Your Life Also Has A Dark Side | by Robin

I am talking about Fritz Haber. He was a German chemist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas.

I drew huge inspiration from the YouTube channel “Veritasium” for this article. All credits to Dr. Derek Muller.

Nitrogen is difficult to absorb from the Earth’s atmosphere, even though it makes up about 78% of the atmosphere.

Photo by Marc Wieland on Unsplash

In the past, colonists tried to use guana, the droppings of birds, as fertilizer for their land because it was 20% nitrogen until that source dried up.

Scientists at that time estimated that it would take another 30 years before people would have nothing to eat, so something had to be done.

In 1909, Fritz Haber placed his osmium plate in the pressure chamber and then heated the nitrogen and hydrogen under pressure to 200 atmospheres and 500 degrees Celsius.

Under these conditions, the triple bonds broke and nitrogen reacted with hydrogen.

Of the total gas mixture, 6% turned into ammonia.

When the gas was cooled, one milliliter of ammonia dripped from the end of a narrow tube into a beaker and Fritz was in ecstasy.

Germany’s largest chemical company, BASF, commercialized Haber’s process.
Within four years, it opened a factory in Oppau and was producing five tons of ammonia a day.

With the fertilizer from this industrial process on the same plot of land, farmers were able to grow four times as much food, and as a result, the population of the earth quadrupled.

In all likelihood, you owe your life to Haber’s invention.

Photo by Steven Weeks on Unsplash

The earth now feeds 4 billion more people than it could without nitrogen fertilizer.

In fact, about 50% of nitrogen atoms come from Haber’s process.

Haber became famous, was given a high position and even became friends with Einstein.

When the 1st World War broke out, Haber followed his duty and went to war himself.

Only a few months after the start of the war, the German army was already running out of gunpowder and explosives.

Ammonium nitrate is not only an excellent fertilizer, but it is also explosive.

Haber lobbied factories to use his process to make ammonia for fertilizer instead of nitrate for explosives.

Haber converted his wing of the institute into a chemical weapons laboratory, and after only a few months of work, he focused on chlorine gas.

A co-worker, Otto Hahn, expressed his unease about the new weapon. Haber told him, “Countless lives would be saved if the war could be ended more quickly in this way.”

Since chlorine gas is two and a half times heavier than air, it sank into the trenches of Allied soldiers.

Any soldier who inhaled a lungful of the gas suffered a horrible death.

Chlorine irritates the mucous membranes of the lungs so violently that they fill with fluid. The soldiers virtually drowned on dry land.

Photo by British Library on Unsplash

In 1933, the Nazis came to power and passed a law that all Jewish state employees, including scientists, should be fired.

Haber was Jewish but never practiced the religion.

Nevertheless, he was exempt from the law because of his military service, but he resigned in solidarity with all Jewish scientists who worked at the Institute.

A year later he died of heart failure in a hotel room in Basel, Switzerland.

Immediately after World War I, Haber’s institute developed a cyanide-based insecticide.

It had a barely detectable odor, so they mixed in a foul-smelling chemical
to warn people of the danger.

The resulting gas was called Zyklon B.

A decade after Haber’s death, Nazi chemists demanded that the foul-smelling ingredient be removed, and this form of Zyklon B, the chemical developed at Haber’s institute, was then used to carry out the Holocaust.

Whether Haber was brainwashed and became a victim of the Nazi regime or acted according to his own will is still a matter of debate. Undeniably, he saved countless lives with his discovery, but we will never know if there would not have been another scientist who would have made the same discovery but would not have used his knowledge to destroy human lives later.

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Things I Wish I Learned Sooner: The Man To Whom You Probably Owe Your Life Also Has A Dark Side | by Robin

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